Friant-Kern Canal in California
Photo by Dennis Silvas (Shutterstock.com)

By Jenifer VanAlstein, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Jason Phillips
Jason Phillips, CEO of Friant Water Athuority

California is in yet another tough water year. It seems as though we are always in a tough water year, even during wet years. That’s because California does not have a water problem… what California has is a water management problem, which is the result of decades of laws, regulations, and decisions that have flipped common sense priorities on its head.

Water contractors want water, of course. But equally important, they want certainty. Decades ago, California farmers did what needed to be done to give themselves certainty. After millions of acres of rich agricultural land has been developed, the need for water has increased. Yet, for decades, leaders have been kicking the can down the road, until we find ourselves in the predicament we’re in now.

Water allocations have been released. The State contractors received a 0% allocation but still must pay for 100% regardless of what they actually receive. Some federal contractors are also at 0%, while those in the Friant Division, are slated to get 20% of their Class I allocations, and 0% of Class 2 supplies, which is equivalent to about 6 % of their total contract supply.. Class 1 and Class 2 contracts were originally designed based on the contractor’s access to groundwater. By design, Class 1 contracts have limited access to groundwater (they are also generally older contracts with more senior water rights). Class 2 contracts have better access to groundwater, which also means they have the ability (generally) for groundwater recharge. So, when Class 2 contractors do not get any water during wet years, there is no ability to capture that water for the groundwater recharge that is so desperately needed.

But even that Class 1 allocation is not a guarantee. The instability in the Delta and Sacramento Valley will ultimately determine the actual amount of water that will be made available to the Friant Division Contractors. The myriad of water agencies had a plan going into May of this year, but then the reservoir inflow forecast changed drastically. We are losing snowpack near Sacramento to evaporation, meaning it is not running off into the rivers. Currently, the Friant Water Authority is working with the various agencies and interests for in an attempt to find some creative solutions that will allow more water to remain on the eastside the San Joaquin Valley. But, the problem is much more than cold water preservation in Shasta reservoir, or salinity levels in the Delta. If the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, near the Los Banos area, are not able to get their water deliveries from the Delta, then they will be able to get water from water stored behind Friant Dam, on the San Joaquin River. That is the same source of water that the Friant Division relies on to provide their supply. Also referred to as a “call on Friant water,” it is a circumstance that is so rare, that in the history of the Exchange Contract, it had never happened until 2014 and 2015. . When this happens, it creates a devastating ripple effect throughout the Valley, as it not only disrupts the farm economy, but also it has a terrible impact on the groundwater wells that supply drinking water for dozens of communities on the eastside.

This new reality, which is not JUST because of dry conditions, is adding significant pressure on the system, specifically for those farmers who have permanent crops. You cannot just not water your almond trees or citrus trees on years you don’t get water; as opposed to row crops, which have more flexibility because of the nature of the crop. Groundwater pumping, where it’s available, is limited under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Many contractors try to buy water from other contractors, particularly in the Northern Sacramento River area. The problem this year is there is no way to move or transfer that water. As much as a half of a million-acre feet of water has been paid for with no way to move that water in the summer. This includes water transfers purchased by cities and municipalities.

To reiterate, we do not have a water problem, we have a water management problem in this state. California has always had, and will always have, dry years. And our farming forefathers built one of the largest water systems in the world to solve the issue. The groundwater and land subsidence crisis in California is primarily the result of more and more surface water being taken away from the Valley through laws and regulations, and the lowering of groundwater is a symptom of that disease. SGMA is treating a symptom, but it is not curing the disease. The solution is more groundwater storage, more conveyance systems, and a regulatory environment that actually acknowledges the simple and historic fact that California’s hydrology is famous for years of abundance, followed by years of scarcity. Not beng prepared to deal with that historic reality is man’s fault, not mother nature’s.

Times of crises reveal the real problems. The historical drought of 2014-2015 caused many farmers and communities to realize that they could no longer even rely on groundwater. California voters approved a bond in 2014 to increase water storage. To date, no projects have been started to increase water storage. And in 2017, the Friant Water Authority discovered a major conveyance capacity issue affecting the Friant Kern Canal. The reliance on groundwater caused significance subsidence under the canal. This “pinchpoint” made it impossible to use the canal at 100% capacity; the canal was designed to convey 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), but is now only able to convey 1600 cfs, and dropping. A bond was put on the ballot in 2018 which would have provided $750 million for a fix to the conveyance system. That bond (the second water bond of 2018) failed by 1%. Our biggest issue is moving water. Yes, we need storage, but more importantly, we need to be able to move water to and from storage.

The good news is that after 4 years of engineering, permitting, and securing partnerships with state, federal, and local leaders, something is being done. Later this year, the Friant Water Authority will be breaking ground on the Friant Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project, which when completed, will correct the capacity woes that are plaguing the system, so that the Friant Contractors can once again rely on whatever allocation they are provided Despite the hurdles, the roadblocks, and the politics, something is being done to help move water (that has already been paid for) to Kern County farmers.

This article was written based off an interview with Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority, but the opinions expressed in the article are the opinions of Jenifer VanAlstein.