FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Growers in California’s Central Valley, famous for transforming patches of desert into the world’s most productive farmland, suffered more than any other during a recent stretch scientists mark as the Golden State’s driest since record-keeping began in 1895. The meager rain and snowfall between 2011 and 2015 forced some smaller farmers to give land back to nature or sell their remaining water supplies to bigger, wealthier farmers and developers.
Before the skies finally opened up in late 2016, the saving grace for many Central Valley farmers was groundwater. Farmers that could afford it drilled hundreds of feet below the valley floor, siphoned up water and rescued lucrative crops like almonds, pistachios and grapes.
The expensive tactic was a stopgap for desperate farmers who were virtually cut off from federal and state surface water. But the pumping came with collateral damage: Various federal, state and private canals that make up the Golden State’s complex water grid sank due to overpumping.
Scientists, farmers and lawmakers agree continuing the rate of groundwater pumping is simply unsustainable.
With the last drought in the rearview and the next one inevitable, the damaging run on groundwater has state water agencies and lawmakers mulling whether to spend hundreds of millions to patch up a federally owned canal. But critics say doing so would amount to a clear bailout for the state’s largest farmers.
“Water is the lifeblood of this region,” said Johnny Amaral, director at Friant Water Authority. “Failure is not an option.”
As he steers his Toyota pickup through Tulare County farmland on a blistering August day, Amaral suddenly points out a canal that for the last few miles had been shrouded by orchards.
Since 1951, the gravity-fed Friant-Kern Canal has delivered San Joaquin River water from Fresno to water districts south to Bakersfield. Tracing the shadow of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the 152-mile canal slinks down the valley’s eastern flank and allows an estimated 15,000 Fresno, Tulare and Kern county farmers to grow world-class produce in a region that is bone-dry for much of the year.
Towns surrounding the canal like Visalia, Exeter and Lindsay used to be famous for citrus, but farmers have wisely bent to the world’s ceaseless demand for California-grown nuts and grapes. Countless new orchards and vineyards dot the valley floor in Tulare County, helping make almonds and grapes two of California’s top agricultural commodities.
But the rush to plant the water-intensive crops – and overpumping the groundwater to quench the plants’ thirst – has caused the canal to settle in the southernmost section and form a pinch point that limits its capacity to deliver water. Experts refer to the settling as subsidence, a term Californians became familiar with during the drought.
During the last drought alone, some areas of land near the canal dropped up 2 feet.
The canal’s owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and its operator, Friant Water Authority, claim it has lost 60% of its ability to deliver water. As a result, when demand is high and supplies are available, the authority has to temper flows to keep water from crossing over bridges that have sunk right along with the canal.
Aside from delivering water for crops, the canal plays an important secondary role by replenishing the underground aquifers when excess supplies are available. The state says nearly all of the basins on the east side of the valley are in critical need of groundwater recharge.
Ryan Jacobsen, fourth-generation farmer and CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, says growers and towns that rely on wells missed out on a golden opportunity during last year’s extremely wet winter to bank groundwater.
“In years like that you really can do tremendous good in boosting the groundwater table,” Jacobsen said. “It’s unfortunate and frustrating that we have this piece of infrastructure that is so critically needed but is not operating to its designed capacity.”
The supremely connected Amaral – he spent over a decade as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes and worked with influential Westlands Water District – and the authority are leading the charge to convince lawmakers and the public that fixing the canal is worth dipping into state coffers for, even though farmers are mostly to blame for the canal’s woes.
They’ve recruited a rookie state senator to try and pry $400 million from the state’s estimated $22 billion surplus to renovate the canal.
Under Senate Bill 559, the authority would have to demonstrate that the project will improve the canal’s carrying capacity, help with groundwater recharge and improve the water quality of nearby municipal wells. Money from the state’s general fund would be doled out in increments no larger than $100 million and the authority would have to match at least 35% of the grant funds.
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, became the state’s youngest-ever female senator last fall when she upset a Republican incumbent in a traditionally conservative district. The stunning victory helped give state Democrats a supermajority in the Senate.
Hurtado, 31, has already helped broker legislation that was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that provides $130 million annually to improve drinking water supplies across the state. Now she’s focusing on the crumbling canal that runs through her district in hopes that the repairs will benefit farmers and rural communities’ water supplies.
The legislation breezed through the state Senate 34-3, and is currently being reviewed by the Assembly fiscal committee. It has received widespread bipartisan support in the Legislature, and is backed by the Central Valley’s congressional members.
“Growing up in the city of Sanger, I, along with my family and friends, encountered firsthand the challenges of limited availability to clean and affordable water,” Hurtado wrote in an email. “SB 559, which has bipartisan support, addresses these issues that disproportionately affect my community and keeps me up at night.”
Critics of the bill are quick to note that last fall, California voters rejected a massive water bond that included $750 million for repairs to the federally owned Friant-Kern and Madera canals. They view SB 559 as a legislative overreach and a clear subsidy for Big Agriculture.
Ron Stork is a policy advocate for Sacramento-based Friends of the River and has been fighting new dams and water conveyance projects for decades. He was part of an effort to freeze a controversial dam project on the American River in Northern California, and he played a critical part in convincing Congress to give the Merced River wild-and-scenic status in the 1980s.
Stork is adamant he has no objection to farmers repairing the canal, as long as it doesn’t come at state taxpayers’ expense.
“They’re irrigating over a million acres of land and with crops that are not exactly poor people’s crops,” Stork said. “It’s well within their means to pay for this project, but in the long tradition of western agriculture and western water interests, they’re interested in having somebody else pay for their bills.”
While it may be easy to pin the canal’s failures solely on its users, Amaral says farmers in the area who don’t buy the canal’s water also contributed to the subsidence when they rushed to drill new wells.
The only group to officially oppose the bill is the Sierra Club of California. Its director, Kathryn Phillips, speculated in a phone interview that a major reason state Democrats are lining up to support the bill is to help keep Hurtado’s farming district seat blue.
“If this bill goes through, it’s not going to be because of the content of the bill, but the politics surrounding Sen. Hurtado,” Phillips said.
As for the Feds
The Bureau of Reclamation can’t officially take a position on the state bill, but it’s well aware of the problems with the Friant-Kern Canal and others.
Adam Nickels, deputy program manager for the bureau’s San Joaquin River Restoration Program, says the bureau has done a variety of interim fixes over the last several years, including millions for new canal liners and painting bridges with a sealant meant to keep them from corroding during periods of high water. The bureau is also helping to fund the authority’s search for the best fix.
One of the options on the table is building a new canal that will run parallel to this existing one, but the authority has yet to make a final decision. Other options include raising the canal’s sidewalls and increasing the slope at the canal’s northern point.
Nickels agrees a variety of parties should pick up the to-be-determined tab.
“Certainly we don’t have all the funding available to cover what Friant is looking to do, but we would agree that we think the best solution is both a private, state and federal partnership that moves this action forward,” Nickels said.
Surviving the next drought
By most indicators, farmers near the canal seem to have recovered financially from the bitter drought.
California farmers sold more than $50 billion in produce in 2017, an increase of 6% compared to the last year of the drought, with Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties the top three producing counties. Total exports in 2017 rose 2.2%, while the total value of California’s agricultural exports has increased 83% over the last 10 years.
But the industry’s ability to bend and survive future droughts could be hampered under California’s first attempt to regulate groundwater usage.
Under a 2014 law coined the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act or SGMA, the state placed 515 water basins into categories and required local users of the high and medium placements to form districts. The districts are in the process of coming up with “water budgets” and sustainability goals, and the new districts will have 20 years to comply with their goals once the plans are approved by the state.
Supporters warn that if the canal isn’t fixed, Central Valley water districts won’t be able to bank excess canal water. They argue a broken canal and the implementation of SGMA would be the death knell for smaller farmers.
“Without hesitation there is enough water that falls in this state on an average basis that we can take advantage of,” said Jacobsen, the Fresno area farmer. “It’s just a matter of having the infrastructure and a desire of the state to make sure that’s what we’re doing.”