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Replacement Central Valley canal threatened by groundwater extraction

Replacement Central Valley irrigation canal threatened by groundwater pumping
Replacement Central Valley irrigation canal threatened by groundwater pumping 05:31

The land had been sinking so fast for so long that the canal was failing, so they built an entire new canal, but now that's sinking as well. It's a dramatic reminder that after two good years, California's water challenges still run deep.

The Friant-Kern Canal, which runs along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it is the lifeline for many farmers and communities in that region. The system starts at Millerton Lake, and from there, it runs 152 miles to the south, powered entirely by gravity. But gravity means going downhill and that has gotten complicated. Decades of groundwater pumping have caused the valley floor to sink, and the canal with it.

KPIX first toured the site back in August of 2022, The fix is a duplicate canal built right along side the old one, only higher, so the water can still flow downhill.

That new canal will go into service in the next few weeks, and it already faces the very same problem as the last one.

"So what you're looking at here in the foreground is the old canal and then just over that dirt pile there is the new canal," explained Johnny Amaral, of the Friant Water Authority. "This is typically an image of people look at and think 'oh my gosh what kind of problem do you have to solve out here.' And that's it."

Stretching out across ten miles of Tulare County is a quiet California mega project that is nearly finished. It is the new Friant-Kern Canal. The old canal, built in the 1940s, was a disaster in slow motion, sinking with the valley floor since the time it was built. It was actually raised in the 70s, but the subsidence has continued. With capacity cut by more than 60 percent, the only option was a new canal, but it still faces the same problem.

Amaral is Chief Operating Officer of the Friant Water Authority, about to celebrate the grand opening of this $300 million lifeline for a million acres of farmland and a quarter million people.

"And now we encountered a new area of subsidence between Avenue 136 and basically the Thule River, which is about 3 miles upstream of here," Amaral said. "That's creating a capacity problem in our new canal. Years of planning. Tricky financing. And on day one we're facing about a 400 CFS capacity problem on day one of this new canal. It's unsustainable."

Now it's sinking faster than expected, threatening the very project that was supposed to keep the water moving.

"It's not rocket science what the cause is," Amaral explained. It's overdraft of groundwater."

"We grow crops to feed the cows that make the milk that makes Land-O-Lakes butter," said Tom Barcellos, driving across one of his properties about 15 minutes from the canal.

Barcellos is a third generation dairy farmer who relies on surface deliveries through the Friant-Kern. 

"Investment companies are coming in, putting in orchards and vineyards," Barcellos said. "Next thing you know, they're drilling deep deep wells. Where my wells were 300 and 400 feet. They're drilling 12 to 1800 feet, drawing the deepest water."

"It's a touchy subject because we're talking about neighbors," Amaral said of the water tensions "We're talking about friends. We're talking about people that we've all known each other for for many many years."

For the Water Authority, the sinking canal is forcing the issue. Now, they're asking the state for intervention on groundwater usage in the basin.

"I hear that quite a bit," Amaral said. "Why are you picking a fight with fellow farmers? My response is, what are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to do? This is the most important infrastructure facility on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it's being harmed and damaged every day."

"The challenges are actually, in a sense, pitting farmer against farmer in a way," Barcellos added. "Because who's pointing fingers at who? The challenges are deep."

They could cut into the capacity of the region's emergency subsidence fix before it even opens. And what scares Amaral even more is that California doesn't plan to reach groundwater sustainability until the year 2040.

"Our problem is that it has to be addressed really soon," Amaral said of the sinking. "Because in order to realize the full capacity to move water through the new canal, this capacity problem has to be addressed immediately."

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