Following months of hydrologic saber-rattling, Fresno lawmakers voted 4-2 to sue Friant Water Authority over a request for payment to fund repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal in the south Valley.
The legal brinkmanship, which centers on a relatively small sum – roughly $2.5 million, could have far-reaching consequences by putting the water supply of California’s fifth-largest city in jeopardy.
During Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting, Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan announced the body voted to approve litigation seeking declaratory relief from the cost-sharing measure proposal to fund subsidence repairs.
The Friant-Kern Canal, managed by the Friant Water Authority, has experienced severe damage in its capacity to convey water to users due to subsidence in its “middle reach,” a 33-mile stretch near Porterville in southern Tulare County, from excessive groundwater pumping.
The funding for the repairs – which is tabbed between $400 and $600 million – is a patchwork of nine-figure legal settlements with groundwater sustainability area agencies in southeastern Tulare County that caused the subsidence, the San Joaquin River River Restoration program, and funding proposals circulating through Congress and the California State Legislature.
The cost shouldered by Friant Water Authority members, meanwhile, sits at $50 million or roughly 10 percent of the median estimated price tag of the project.
For Fresno, that share pencils out to approximately $2.5 million, a figure agreed to by former Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and his administration before leaving office in December.
Thursday’s move, backed by Fresno City Council members Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza, Tyler Maxwell, and Mike Karbassi is a stark reversal of that 2020 move.
Council President Luis Chavez and Council member Garry Bredefeld opposed the suit on Thursday.
Fresno City Council member Esmeralda Soria abstained from the vote.
Following the announcement, Fresno City Manager Thomas Esqueda chimed in to add perspective to the emerging battle.
“Friant knows who is responsible for the damage – they clearly know who is responsible,” he said of the water agency. “We know that because Friant has entered into settlement agreements with parties that caused the damage. Unfortunately, Friant did not request those parties to pay the full cost of repair, hence they’re coming to the City of Fresno to backfill that deficit.”
He argued that Fresno, a key member of the authority, will see no benefit to contributing to the repairs with any cost-sharing arrangement serving as a drag on the city’s water ratepayers.
“No action by the City of Fresno caused the damage to the Friant-Kern Canal, nothing we ever did caused that,” Esqueda said. “The request by Friant to repair for the damages, that weren’t caused by the city, provides no benefit to the city.”
But the claim is murky: the City of Fresno, a Class I Friant water user, has the rights to utilize the full-length of the Friant-Kern Canal to move water to and from other users in the event of water transfers.
In the past, Fresno has availed itself of water transfers through the regional water artery.
However, Esqueda said he sought a compromise with Friant officials, seeking additional, unspecified benefits in exchange for the city’s canal repair payment.
In the middle of a drought, why pick a fight now?
For months, the Fresno City Council has debated the prospect of suing the water agency behind closed doors.
And while Esqueda argued that times are particularly rough for Fresno – as ratepayers are $14 million in arrears on water bills, or 14 times the norm – the timing of Thursday’s decision comes at an inauspicious moment for some options to fund repairs along one of the Valley’s three major arteries.
A key piece of legislation in Sacramento – Senate Bill 559 – was all-but-killed by California lawmakers in the waning days of the 2021 legislative session.
The bill, spearheaded by Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D–Fresno), saw its $308 million funding for the Friant-Kern Canal repair gutted by members of the California State Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Appropriations committee members took an additional step by introducing hostile amendments to the bill, transforming direct appropriations to local water agencies into a would-be messy bureaucratic affair with clearances from the California Department of Water Resources.
Ultimately, however, the Friant Water Authority has secured near-unanimous backing for its $50 million member-led fund for repairs.
The sole holdout? Fresno.
Steeper trouble ahead for Fresno?
It’s distinctly possible that Fresno – which presently holds a 60,000 acre-foot contract within the Friant division of the Central Valley Project – may have invited more harm than good through its suit.
The starting point? It is not entirely clear whether the suit is even targeting the proper agency.
The reason ultimately rests on a key question: does the repair of the Friant-Kern Canal’s middle reach constitute operations and maintenance?
If so, Fresno, under its agreement with the Federal government, is legally required to pay its share.
And while Friant Water Authority serves as the operator of the Friant-Kern Canal, such an issue would ultimately need to be taken up with the Federal government.
In two past instances, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – the principal agency that oversees virtually all aspects of the Central Valley Project – has intimated that the Friant-Kern Canal project is part of operations and maintenance obligations included in the Friant division’s water contracts.
Failure to pay so-called “O&M funds” can result in water service being shuttered to delinquent water users.
The Friant Water Authority has petitioned Reclamation to weigh in on the question once more via the agency’s dispute resolution authority to settle all questions of whether Fresno and other contractor shares are contractually required.
The Sun contacted the Friant Water Authority for comment.
This story will be updated.