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New bill would repair Friant-Kern canal, benefiting both the Valley and state

Water from Millerton Lake fills the Friant-Kern Canal below Friant Dam in this file photo from 2018.
Water from Millerton Lake fills the Friant-Kern Canal below Friant Dam in this file photo from 2018. Fresno Bee file

Today, more than 100 rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley have limited access to clean water, while many others have seen their wells go dry. At the same time, water deliveries and water infrastructure required to fuel the Valley’s economic engine have become unreliable, and in some areas, broken.

Those factors, coupled with the looming implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will cap access to groundwater supplies, has created a perfect storm for water issues happening all at once. A reliable and clean water supply is a central piece of this year’s agenda for both Gov. Newsom, who has called it a “moral issue,” and for me and many of my colleagues in the Legislature. As a representative of the Central Valley, finding real solutions for these problems is a top priority for me.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado Lorie Leilani Shelley

So, can we achieve the goals of making sure we have maximum efficiency of our existing water delivery systems and also securing access to clean water supplies for our communities? The short answers are yes we can, and yes we should.

The Friant-Kern Canal is a critical piece of infrastructure for meeting both of California’s policy goals mentioned above, and it is in need of immediate attention. This is why I am proud to author Senate Bill 559, which has received bipartisan support from Central Valley members — including Assemblymembers Jim Patterson, Rudy Salas, Devon Mathis, Frank Bigelow and Vince Fong, and Sens. Andreas Borgeas, Anna Caballero and Shannon Grove. The bill requests $400 million from the general fund to restore the conveyance capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal.

The Friant-Kern Canal in the San Joaquin Valley is sinking as parts of the San Joaquin Valley floor collapse because of subsidence, the result of excessive groundwater pumping during the drought. Bridges in this area of the canal, near Terra Bella, used to be 12 feet above the water’s surface. Now there is just one foot of clearance. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee file

The Friant-Kern Canal, completed in 1951, runs 152 miles from Friant Dam north of Fresno to the Kern River in Bakersfield. It is a key facility for delivery of clean run-off from the San Joaquin River watershed to provide water for irrigation and municipal uses and to recharge groundwater aquifers. Some of California’s most vulnerable communities rely on this system to deliver clean water, including seven cities and counties that receive surface water from the canal and serve nearly 160,000 municipal connections, as well as 18,000 family farms cultivating nearly 1.2 million acres.

Beyond that, the canal supports groundwater sustainability for a massive number of Central Valley residents who rely on wells in small or rural communities, including more than 40 predominantly low-income communities of color.

The Friant-Kern Canal delivers water to almost a quarter of the Central Valley’s agricultural land and 22 percent of all farms in California. However, today, part of the canal has sunk by more than 12 feet below its original elevation. The southernmost portion, over one-third of the canal, has suffered the loss of 60 percent of its carrying capacity, severely diminishing its ability to supply surface water. In addition, the loss has resulted in virtually eliminating the canal’s ability to supply recharge water below the pinch point and, in the process, negatively impacting the water delivery system of the entire state. This is not just a regional issue, it is a statewide issue because regional and statewide water-sharing agreements are now at risk.

Many communities within the San Joaquin Valley, including farmers, families, businesses and children, don’t have access to the most basic human need: clean water. We can and must do better.

Groundwater quality problems worsen when aquifers can’t be regularly recharged with fresh sources of water supply. Communities on the east side of the Valley are ground zero for some of our most critical groundwater quality problems statewide.

SB 559 invests in the improvement of our infrastructure, which is needed to secure the economic vitality of California in general and our Valley’s booming agricultural industry and legacy, specifically. If we do not act, California will continue to lose up to 300,000 acre-feet of water per year for groundwater recharge and storage because the canal is unable to deliver it. That is enough water to meet the needs of over 1 million people for a year, or enough water to irrigate over 100,000 acres of the most productive farmland in the world.

Inaction will have severe and unacceptable impacts to our local economy. It is not only the responsible thing to do, it is the right thing to do for our economy, for our farmers, for our environment, for our families and for our future.

Melissa Hurtado is a state senator representing the 14th District, which includes cities in Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.