As the Legislature gaveled the 2020 session to a close early Tuesday morning, it left a long trail of bills on the floor, stretching from the beginning of the pandemic to the session’s final minutes. Among those, several measures aimed to repair and maintain critical water infrastructure across the state, with the most notable being a crippled section of the Friant-Kern Canal in the San Joaquin Valley.
In 2018 the failed Proposition 3 water bond for nearly $9 billion had promised $700 million to the Friant Water Authority for fixing canals, which would restore conveyance capacity and improve groundwater recharge. Yet on Sunday, lawmakers sidelined a last-ditch effort to bring just $50 million for the effort.
This came after a two-year endeavor to pass Senate Bill 559. First-year Senator Melissa Hurtado, a moderate Democrat representing about half the counties in the San Joaquin Valley, was proposing $400 million for the Friant-Kern Canal.
The bill had already suffered a quiet defeat in 2019 at the hands of Assembly Appropriations Committee Chair Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego. This year the committee passed SB 559, but only after removing the funding and amending the bill. It instead proposed the Department of Water Resources simply study and report on the costs for fixing the canal and how much funding the federal government would contribute. Both houses approved the new bill on Monday.
“The Legislature’s passage of SB 559 with nearly unanimous support will keep a path open for California to join local and federal agencies in funding the Friant-Kern Canal’s critical repairs,” said Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips in a statement to Agri-Pulse. "We are disappointed, though, that the specific funding authorization was stripped out of the bill and additional hurdles were added to the process at a time when we’re expending substantial effort to assemble a funding package before next year.”
Phillips thanked Hurtado and the valley’s lawmakers for sticking with the issue over the last year.
The bill has long faced criticism from the more liberal Democrats in the Capitol. In 2019 Assemblymember Laura Friedman of Glendale said SB 559 was letting the federal government “off the hook” and “using taxpayer money to bail out these very large farms.”
In its opposition letter, the Sierra Club claimed the bill would subsidize agricultural profits.
“Over-allocation and over-pumping of the canal from agricultural interests is what caused the subsidence that the proponents of this bill seek to rectify,” argued the group.
In defense of the bill, Alexandra Biering, a government affairs manager for the Friant Water Authority, explained to Friedman the complex background to the issue. She said that while the 70-year-old canal was owned by the federal government, it would soon be a locally owned facility. The surface water that delivered through the canal does go mostly to the agricultural users who have senior rights. The 40% decrease in capacity for the canal, however, would have been water used entirely for discharge, according to Biering. During high-flow periods, the lost water would have been used to recharge groundwater aquifers that supply drinking water to disadvantaged communities.
Bieiring said the water authority had tried to acquire a loan from the federal government, but the government “doesn't loan money to itself to fix its own facilities.”
“We can't keep kicking this can down the road,” said Asm. Joaquin Arambula of Fresno, a coauthor on the bill.
Arambula said local municipalities and agricultural groups have paid “up to a billion dollars” to help repair the canal over the years, and it hasn’t been enough.
Bakersfield Asm. Rudy Salas told Agri-Pulse a bill like SB 559 requires a lot of work in building trust and earning votes among lawmakers.
“A lot of it is also educating the governor, the administration and some of my more urban colleagues on what this actually means,” he said. “For my colleagues down in Los Angeles, I tell them we need to fix the pipes so that the water gets down to their constituents as well. This is something we need to prioritize.”
The fact that SB 559 stalled in Appropriations in 2019 was likely due to its large price tag, according to California Citrus Mutual.
Republican Asm. Devon Mathis of Visalia, a coauthor on the bill, told Agri-Pulse the move was simply “freshman hazing.”
Days after the new version of the bill passed the committee and less than a week before the close of the 2020 session, a new measure, AB 1659, appeared, proposing $3 billion for wildfire prevention, with $50 million attached for the canal—along with Hurtado as a coauthor. The provision required at least a 50% cost share for the funding to be approved.
The bill was “a slimmed-down version” of SB 45, according to Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica, who led the proposal for a $5.5-billion climate resilience bond, which had eventually stalled amid the sudden budget shortfall created by the coronavirus crisis.
AB 1659 immediately faced heavy opposition from agricultural and business groups, since it would derive revenue by extending a fee on ratepayers. While the fee was just half a cent, it could add up to as much as $20,000 each year for some food processors, argued Western Agricultural Processors Association CEO Roger Isom.
Adding this cost to California businesses, “who already pay the highest electricity rates in the country, is simply unacceptable,” said Isom.
He also took issue with the $600 million that would go toward projects for ecosystem restoration, air quality improvement and backup solar power.
“The ratepayer money is to be utilized only in ratepayers’ areas,” explained Senate Majority Leader Robert Hertzberg of Van Nuys during a committee hearing on the bill last week. “This just simply extends this time for it to be able to get a revenue stream.”
Staci Heaton, a policy advocate for Rural County Representatives of California, added that extreme wildfires impact everyone in the state, including “some of California's largest agricultural industries, whose crops are impacted by the taint of wildfire smoke.”
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Yet the state’s top business groups and about a dozen leading agricultural groups opposed the measure.
“It is simply unfair to take by force ratepayer money for wildfire mitigation unrelated to utilities,” said Rob Moultrie, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce.
Sen. Steven Bradford of Gardena raised concerns that the bill “undermines all the great work that this Legislature and the governor did last year through AB 1054 to help stabilize the utility industry.”
Before the pandemic, the governor’s administration was also developing a plan to invest in repairing the state’s water conveyance infrastructure. It was a top priority for the Water Resilience Portfolio as well as the governor’s proposed $1-billion “climate budget,” which looked to put a climate resilience bond similar to SB 45 on the November ballot to fund the goals.
As a broad coalition formed to tackle water issues in the San Joaquin Valley, California's members of Congress joined the effort as well. The House passed a measure to allocate $200 million for repairing the Friant-Kern Canal, the Delta-Mendota Canal and other key conveyance infrastructure in the valley.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein then proposed a similar bill in the Senate. Yet both measures still have far to go. Any funding sent to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for infrastructure would need state or local agencies to provide matching support. This is why Hurtado had amended SB 559 earlier in August to establish a joint powers authority that would come up with a funding match of at least 35% from local or federal resources.
Now that the Legislature has stifled efforts to fund the canal repairs, steeper hurdles await valley lawmakers next year.
The budget passed by the Legislature in July was based on revenues before the pandemic. The next state budget will have far less tax revenue to work with due to widespread unemployment and shuttered businesses. Federal support remains in limbo as well, while Congress struggles to agree on the next aid package.
Top photo: Friant-Kern Canal (Department of Water Resources)
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