Fresno votes to fight share of Friant-Kern Canal repairs, possibly jeopardizing water supply

After months of hydrological rattling, Fresno lawmakers voted 4-2 to sue Friant Water Authority over a demand for payment to fund repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal in the South Valley.

The legal scam, which focuses on a relatively small sum – around $ 2.5 million, could have far-reaching consequences by jeopardizing the water supply in California’s fifth largest city.

During the Fresno City Council meeting on Thursday, Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan announced that the body had voted to approve litigation seeking declaratory relief on the proposed cost-sharing measure. to finance subsidence repairs.

The Friant-Kern Canal, managed by the Friant Water Authority, suffered severe damage in its ability to deliver water to users due to sagging of its “average span,” a 33-mile stretch near Porterville in southern Tulare County, from excessive groundwater. pumping.

The repair funding – which ranges between $ 400 million and $ 600 million – is a patchwork of nine-figure legal settlements with groundwater management agencies in southeast Tulare County that caused the subsidence, the program San Joaquin River Restoration and Funding Proposals Outstanding. by Congress and the California State Legislature.

The cost borne by members of the Friant Water Authority, meanwhile, is $ 50 million, or about 10% of the estimated median price of the project.

For Fresno, that’s about $ 2.5 million, a figure agreed to by former Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and his administration before stepping down in December.

Thursday’s decision, backed by Fresno City Council members Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza, Tyler Maxwell and Mike Karbassi, is a stark reversal of that 2020 decision.

Council Chairman Luis Chavez and Council Member Garry Bredefeld opposed the lawsuit on Thursday.

Esmeralda Soria, a member of Fresno City Council, abstained from the vote.

After the announcement, Fresno City Manager Thomas Esqueda stepped 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 this because Friant has made settlement agreements with the parties that caused the damage. Unfortunately, Friant did not ask these parties to pay the full cost of the repairs, which is why they are coming to the City of Fresno to fill this gap.

He argued that Fresno, a key member of the authority, will see no benefit in helping with repairs with a cost-sharing agreement acting as a drag on city taxpayers.

“No action by the City of Fresno caused damage to the Friant-Kern Canal, nothing we did ever caused that,” Esqueda said. “Friant’s request to repair the damage, which was not caused by the city, does not bring any benefit to the city.

But the claim is obscure: The City of Fresno, a Class I Friant water user, has the right to use the entire length of the Friant-Kern Canal to deliver water to and from other users in the event of water transfers.

In the past, Fresno has used water transfers through the regional water route.

However, Esqueda said he was seeking a compromise with officials at Friant, seeking additional unspecified benefits in return for paying the city for repairs to the canal.

In the midst of a drought, why fight now?

For months, Fresno City Council debated the prospect of suing the water agency behind closed doors.

And while Esqueda has argued that times are especially tough for Fresno – as taxpayers are $ 14 million in arrears on water bills, 14 times the norm – Thursday’s decision time comes at not a good time for some options to fund repairs along any of the three main arteries.

A key law in Sacramento – Senate Bill 559 – was all but killed by California lawmakers in the dying days of the 2021 legislative session.

The bill, led by Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Fresno), saw its $ 308 million funding for the repair of the Friant-Kern Canal drained by members of the State Assembly’s Appropriations Committee from California.

Members of the credit committee took it a step further by introducing hostile amendments to the bill, turning direct credit to local water agencies into a potentially messy bureaucratic affair with clearances from the California Department of Water Resources.

Ultimately, however, the Friant Water Authority garnered near unanimous support for its member-led $ 50 million fund for repairs.

The only resistance? Fresno.

Bigger problems ahead for Fresno?

It’s entirely possible that Fresno – which currently holds a 60,000 acre-foot contract within the Friant division of the Central Valley project – has invited more harm than good through its lawsuit.

The starting point? It is not entirely clear whether the lawsuit even targets the appropriate agency.

The reason ultimately rests on a key question: does repairing the middle reach of the Friant-Kern Canal constitute operation and maintenance?

If so, Fresno, by virtue of its agreement with the federal government, is legally obligated to pay its share.

And while the Friant Water Authority serves as the operator of the Friant-Kern Canal, such an issue should ultimately be raised with the federal government.

In two earlier cases, the United States Bureau of Reclamation – the main agency overseeing virtually every aspect of the Central Valley project – has implied that the Friant-Kern Canal project is part of the O&M obligations. included in the water contracts of the Friant division.

Failure to pay what are known as “operation and maintenance funds” can result in the shutdown of the water service to delinquent water users.

The Friant Water Authority has asked Reclamation to weigh the matter once again through the agency’s dispute resolution authority to resolve any questions of whether Fresno and other actions of the contractor are contractually. required.

The Sun has contacted the Friant Water Authority for comment.

This story will be updated.

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