Agriculture

Hurtado pulls bill to repair sinking canals after legislators yank funding

A bill navigating the California State Legislature that would have provided significant funds to repair some of the state’s major waterways came to a screeching halt on Wednesday.

Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D–Sanger) announced she would be pulling Senate Bill 559 – The State Water Resiliency Act of 2021 – after the Assembly gutted its funding and amended it to include additional bureaucratic hurdles.

Senate 559 would have provided $785 million to repair canals, roads and bridges that have been damaged by subsidence. The funds would have gone directly towards repairing sections of the Friant-Kern Canal, the Delta-Mendota Canal, the San Luis Canal and the California Aqueduct. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $200 million over two years to canal repairs in his May revision to the budget, which was ultimately approved and enacted by legislators.

But the Hurtado’s bill, which directed specific funding allocations to key canal projects, was seen as the vessel to send funds directly to Valley water agencies to expedite improvements on key water arteries.

Instead, along with stripping specific spending, the amendments out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee sought to require all appropriations receive clearance from the Department of Water Resources following a bevy of studies.

The additional proposed hurdle through DWR was reminiscent of local struggles to obtain Proposition 1 funding for water storage projects from the California Water Commission.

“Western states are at war with climate change driven drought. The situation continues to worsen, and solutions for us to adapt are clear. The cries for help from communities that are running out of water and from struggling farmers wasn’t enough to stop forced Assembly amendments to a sound solution,” Hurtado said in a statement to The Sun. 

“It is unfortunate, but I will not add further pain to struggling farmworkers and communities. For this reason – I am withholding SB 559 for a vote this session. I am disappointed, but will keep pushing to secure adequate funding for water infrastructure, and I hope to further inform my colleagues on the consequences of drought – namely food insecurity and water shortages as I chair hearings on the Select Committee on Human Security.” 

The bill was a bipartisan effort to fund the much-needed repairs for the state’s water infrastructure.

Coauthors include Senators Andreas Borgeas (R–Fresno) and Shannon Grove (R–Bakersfield) as well as Assembly Members Joaquin Arambula (D–Fresno) and Devon Mathis (R–Visalia). 

It was also part of a three-pronged approach in partnership with Congressman Jim Costa (D–Fresno) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.). 

In April, Costa introduced the Canal Conveyance Capacity Restoration Act to the House of Representatives, which would secure $653 million in federal funds to go toward Central Valley canals. 

The third leg in the process was to receive the other third of the needed funding directly from the water users themselves. 

But now the plan is up in the air now that Hurtado’s efforts have fallen through for the time being. 

The Friant Water Authority, San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority and State Water Contractors released a joint statement expressing their disappointment that the bill fell through. 

“We are disappointed that SB 559 did not proceed to a full vote this year, however we support Senator Hurtado’s decision in light of the most recent amendments she was forced to accept. Ignoring California’s water infrastructure needs by delaying action on repairs has devastating effects on our economy, quality of life, climate resiliency, food security, ecosystem health and public safety,” the groups stated. 

“Just imagine if we had completed these repairs prior to this current drought, California would be in a much better place than we are now. Securing California’s water future by repairing and updating the infrastructure that 31 million people and 3 million acres of farmland rely on isn’t a choice, we must get it done. We look forward to continuing our work with Senator Hurtado next year on a bill that will secure much-needed state funding for canal repairs.” 

The bill’s failure also struck a chord of disappointment with some of California’s top farmers. 

California Fresh Fruit Association President Ian LeMay said the decision by the Assembly to axe the bill’s funding while the state is facing drought is a clear attempt to drive food production away. 

“In light of the staggering state budget surplus, the decision to defund the repair of our critical conveyance systems is not financial, but ideological, and will harm thousands of multi-generational family farms and countless disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley,” LeMay said in a statement. 

Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia also took aim at the Assembly, saying that this decision will lead to farms having to reduce operations. 

“In once again eviscerating Senator Hurtado’s legislation to repair critical water infrastructure, the Assembly’s leaders leave no uncertainty as to the future they want for the farms, farmers, farmworkers and communities of the San Joaquin Valley,” Puglia said in a statement. 

“They will do whatever it takes to keep taxpayer money flowing to a high-speed rail project we can do without and do whatever it takes to deny funds to help repair water infrastructure we cannot do without. We are enormously grateful to Senator Hurtado for her tenacity and to those who stood with her even as their leaders gave them, and all of us, the middle finger.”

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.