Imagine the Silicon Valley without technology or Hollywood without the entertainment industry. Just as those areas depend on their foundations for prosperity, our ability to capture, move and store water for agriculture is a determining factor for our region’s prosperity.
In the southern San Joaquin Valley, water is our lifeblood. When it flows, communities prosper. Without it, jobs disappear, families leave, services evaporate and communities suffer. Even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with agriculture, if you live in our Valley, water matters.
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The Friant Division of the Central Valley Project is a key provider of water to the eastside of the San Joaquin Valley. Every year, Friant delivers water from Millerton Lake via the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal and 35-mile Madera Canal to more than 18,000 farms and nearly 160,000 families and businesses. Friant is one of the largest and most successful conjunctive-use programs in the nation. In dry years, when surface water is limited, Friant communities rely more heavily on groundwater. In wet years, when surface water is more plentiful, communities use less groundwater, allowing for greater aquifer recharge to occur.
The Friant water system was designed to bring stability to groundwater on the valley’s eastside, which was threatened in the 1930s by decades of groundwater overdraft. At the time, the federal government justified its investment in water infrastructure because of the region’s enormous importance to agriculture. Friant family farmers occupy a significant portion of all land farmed in the top-three ag-producing counties in the United States, which in 2015 generated nearly $20 billion in economic output. They also farm in two of the top 10 ag counties nationwide.
Today, the San Joaquin Valley is in crisis. Like a python that slowly squeezes the life from its victim, increased regulations restricting water deliveries combined with bureaucratic constraints prohibiting construction of new water infrastructure has resulted in the overuse of groundwater by users throughout the Valley. Most are outside of Friant’s district boundaries and lack a surface water supply. This is threatening Friant’s ability to meet our region’s water needs.
These regulatory decisions have put an enormous strain on groundwater supplies within the San Joaquin Valley. The result has been a forced overreliance on groundwater and a severe “subsidence” or sinking of land, including right underneath our key water conveyance system. If left unaddressed, this will ultimately be a knockout blow to water availability.
Our future is at risk. 2017 was a perfect illustration of the problem: it was a record wet year, and land subsidence in Friant’s service area resulted in the inability to deliver more than 300,000 acre-feet of water, or 15percent of total water supplies that year, because the water couldn’t pass through the subsided portions of the Friant-Kern Canal. That’s nearly 100 billion gallons that could not be used to recharge eastside groundwater aquifers. The stark reality is that without action – fixing damaged canals and restoring Delta water supply reliability – almost one-third of the land currently farmed throughout the Valley could go out of production, devastating economies, killing jobs and putting local services at risk.
On the Nov. 6 ballot, California voters can act to keep our Valley sustainable by passing Proposition 3, the Water Supply and Water Quality Act. The initiative provides nearly $750 million to help improve the Friant-Kern Canal and rebuild other vital water delivery features and arteries. This is the first time that a statewide initiative has focused investment directly within the Valley. Proposition 3 has the support of Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, business, environmental justice advocates, and nonprofits across the state. For too long, statewide investment in Valley infrastructure has been ignored.
More than 70 years ago, the Friant Division was designed to bring stability to groundwater in the eastern San Joaquin Valley and support the communities that feed the world. We also need to restore deliveries from the Delta, build new surface storage, and reduce our overall groundwater use. One step at a time, we can bring the Valley back onto the path of economic stability. Like technology to Silicon Valley and entertainment to Hollywood, water matters to the Valley. And a healthy, sustainable Valley matters to California.
Jason Phillips is chief executive officer of the Friant Water Authority.