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Drought exposes need to upgrade water facilities

Issue Date: June 16, 2021
By Christine Souza

Severe drought highlights the need for greater investment to improve aging California water facilities, and increases calls for allocation of federal and state resources to tackle the problem.

A national coalition that includes the California Farm Bureau urged U.S. Senate leaders last week to take action to address the shortcomings of aging water infrastructure, and to include "a broad range of water uses" in any federal infrastructure legislation. At the same time, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators plan to invest at least $5 billion to address critical water needs.

Water district officials say canals that stay dry due to drought may be more prone to cracking and other damage. In addition, California Farm Bureau environmental policy analyst Justin Fredrickson said local agencies are developing plans to balance groundwater supplies under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—making investment in water facilities even more critical.

"The 20th century engineers who crisscrossed the state and built the now aging, once world-class system we have inherited had extraordinary vision and foresight," Fredrickson said, "but they didn't foresee the ever-growing environmental and ecosystem demands of recent decades, SGMA, a population of 40 million, or the extreme weather patterns already notably afflicting our state."

Due to subsidence linked to groundwater pumping, one infrastructure project is repair of a 33-mile stretch of the Friant-Kern Canal, operated by the Friant Division of the federal Central Valley Project. The canal has lost up to 300,000 acre-feet of water deliveries in certain water years.

The Friant Water Authority, the non-federal operating agency for the canal, is working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to restore part of the canal, which delivers water to more than 1 million acres and 250,000 residents in Tulare and Kern counties.

"Where we have a problem in California, and maybe across the West, is the prioritization of big infrastructure facilities," said Johnny Amaral, chief of external affairs for the Friant Water Authority. "We're losing the ability to move large chunks of water in wet years."

Amaral said some water projects "have been deemed feasible or have been talked about since the Clinton administration and before, and nothing's been built. If just one of those projects had been built in the last 20 or 30 years, this predicament this year would not be nearly as bad."

As of May, he said, the Friant Water Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation had assembled a funding package for the project, including substantial contributions from federal and local agencies. State funding is also being pursued; Newsom's announcement of a $5.1 billion plan for state investments in water facilities and climate resiliency identified $200 million for restoring capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal and other conveyance facilities.

Legislation by state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, would allocate $308 million for Friant-Kern Canal repairs. Senate Bill 559 would also set aside money for repairs to the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct.

The California Department of Water Resources constructs, operates and maintains several large-scale projects, including the State Water Project. As part of its mission to manage the state's water resources, DWR assesses the condition of its facilities and performs maintenance and repairs.

Regarding the dams under its jurisdiction, DWR staff said many factors are considered when determining the most pressing repair priorities, such as the age of the dams, which span from the 1850s to the present; types of dams, such as concrete arch, gravity, earthfill, rockfill etc.; and their location, such as proximity to earthquake faults.

In addition to large infrastructure needs, smaller irrigation districts say routine maintenance and repairs add up in a drought year.

Tulelake Irrigation District general manager Brad Kirby said a summer without water in the canals usually leads to cracking and more damage than would occur in a year with water. The district is part of the federal Klamath Project and maintains 230 miles of canals, 340 miles of drains and 10 district wells.

In a year with no water allocated, Kirby said, "I can't even start to put a figure on what all those additional costs are going to be until the end of the year."

In its letter to leaders of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the coalition representing Western farmers, ranchers, water districts, businesses and communities warned that changing hydrological conditions and an expanding population in the region raise serious concerns about the future viability of water infrastructure.

To keep water flowing to farms, ranches, cities and the environment, the coalition called for substantial federal investment to bolster deteriorating storage and conveyance facilities, and build new ones.

"This funding will assist in addressing critical safety needs, develop new infrastructure, invest in smart water technology and conservation, and improve forest and water ecosystems. Additionally, it will spur economic recovery and prepare us to meet the water needs of the next generation in the face of a changing climate," the coalition letter said.

The coalition identified more than $13 billion in U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water infrastructure needs during the next 10 years, including storage and conveyance; $34 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to undertake forest restoration, watershed protection and flood prevention projects; and $1.75 billion for Army Corps of Engineers water storage projects and environmental infrastructure. The coalition also encouraged Congress to streamline regulation and permitting processes.

"Investment in water infrastructure for the state has got to be done," said Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau senior counsel. "It's too late for this year, but we need to get these infrastructure fixes online before the next drought. Repairs to infrastructure have been overdue for some time, and will help ensure that future droughts won't be as miserable."

During a previous drought in November 2014, California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond that included $2.7 billion for the public benefits of water storage projects, but farmers and water officials have expressed frustration at the slow distribution of that funding.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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