Agriculture

Federal, local officials kick off millions in repairs to Friant-Kern Canal

TERRA BELLA – Local and Federal water officials and lawmakers celebrated the groundbreaking of a massive project on the Friant-Kern Canal on Tuesday, marking the start of the canal’s restoration. 

Coming in at $187 million, the first portion of the massive effort will restore capacity within the canal in a 10-mile portion that has been affected by subsidence: the sinking of the canal’s bottom from groundwater removal. 

With 33 miles of the Friant-Kern Canal in total that have sunk due to subsidence, Tuesday’s groundbreaking kicks off the first phase of the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction restoration project. 

Jason Phillips, the CEO of the Friant Water Authority, called the canal one of the most important infrastructure projects in the Valley and noted the efforts of local representatives and water agencies to fix the issue since it was discovered in 2017. 

“Fixing this problem has very unique challenges, starting with who should pay for it,” Phillips said. “This canal is owned by the United States, the Bureau of Reclamation. It’s been fully paid for, operated and maintained by Friant division contractors. It’s been impacted by surrounding lands and groundwater overdraft, pumping which has been done legally, as the State of California grapples with regulating overdraft in the region and in the state. So I think one can understand why one when faced with this challenge we ask ourselves where do we even begin.”

Last October, Reclamation and the Friant Water Authority agreed to a deal with construction companies Brosamer & Wall and Tutor Perini to take on the first phase of the project, which is estimated to cost around $500 million in total. 

The canal is currently operating at 1,600 cubic-feet-per-second. One restored, the canal will be running back at its original 4,000 cubic-feet-per-second. 

Congressmen Jim Costa (D–Fresno) and David Valadao (R–Hanford) were on hand for the groundbreaking, with both representatives celebrating the bipartisan support that ultimately funded the project. 

Costa specifically noted the $206 million allocated to Friant-Kern Canal improvements in the 2020 omnibus spending bill but also encouraged increased efforts for further water projects. 

“We need to make the same kind of investments our parents and grandparents made a generation or two ago,” Costa said. “We’ve been living off these investments, and the Friant-Kern Canal was one of those investments. It’s long past due that we make similar kinds of investments for the next generation of Californians and Americans.” 

Costa also praised the bipartisan infrastructure bill, signed by President Joe Biden last December, for making the largest investment in Reclamation in over 50 years, which he hopes will impact water storage throughout California. 

Joining the national representatives was State Senator Melissa Hurtado (D–Sanger) who pushed for state funding to fix the canal through Senate Bill 559. 

Although she pulled SB 559 last year after her fellow legislators removed its funding, the state included nearly $40 million for canal repairs in the budget at the end of last year. 

When she first introduced SB 559, Hurtado heard from critics that it was simply a “payout for big Ag.”

“Water security and these canals mean so much more than just water, and no, it’s not a payout for big Ag,” Hurtado said. 

“It’s an investment in all of California. It really is, because we provide food for this state. We provide food for this nation. And we provide food security, which also means good health to the communities all across the Central Valley and really across the state, because water is not just water, it’s also food, it’s also good health.” 

Tanya Trujillo, the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science for the Department of the Interior, David Palumbo, the Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, Ernest Conant, the Regional Director for the Bureau of Reclamation, Karla Nemeth, the Director of the California Department of Water Resources and Cliff Loeffler, the Chairman of the Friant Water Authority, were also present at the groundbreaking site, just a few miles west of here. 

“Today is a day that should be celebrated,” Phillips said. “It’s taken many years to get to this point, and there’s definitely more work to do. But it sure does feel like it’s the end of the beginning.”

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.