The Friant Water Authority board of directors met at the Bello Vita Event Venue in Visalia on Thursday, August 31, 2023 and on Mircosnot Teams. There was good attendance due to the good food and happy news Friant always gives away. Or perhaps and more likely it was because of the scheduled presentation by a respected federal official with direct knowledge of the biological opinions involving the Delta. These biops are the framework for Delta water operations and are one of the biggest gears in the machine that either allows or prevents water to be exported from the Delta.
Remember the Friant system takes San Joaquin River water that used to go to the remnants of the Miller & Lux cattle empire headquartered in Los Banos. This is where the Exchange Contractors are located as well. Ex Con is part of the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority. If the US Bureau of Reclamation can’t get enough water from the Delta they’re liable to take San Joaquin River water from Millerton Lake and send it downstream to Ex Con. That’s the connect as to why what happens in the Delta impacts Bakersfield.
The open session began at 10:11am with Director Cliff Loeffler asking the Lord for a blessing on the gathering by bestowing wisdom in the decisions. Amen to that, we could all use some divine wisdom. Chairman Jim Erickson told us there was no reportable action coming out of closed session.
Fish & Wildlife
Right away CEO Jason Phillips introduced Paul Souza, Regional Director of the Southwest Region of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Phillips, who previously to Friant had a career with the US Bureau of Reclamation introduced him as a longtime colleague and friend.
Souza actually approached Friant about speaking. He said it was time to communicate in light of the grinding drought and this wonderful water year. He said finding out one day not long ago all of California’s major reservoirs were full brought a smile. He said he’ll be touching on the Delta – biops, the tunnel and other topics.
Souza spent much of his early career in the Florida Everglades. The Everglades panther was in danger of being wiped out due to loss of habitat. The working cattle ranches were key in providing habitat. The panthers in Florida are genetically indistinguishable from Texas panthers. So, several female panthers were introduced and that species is making a comeback. He said working with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has been a powerful tool for ag and wildlife. He deals with scarcity and conflict and believes ag and the environment need to work together. He values agriculture and understands how much of a challenge farming can be. It is agriculture that provides much of the wetlands in the San Joaquin Valley.
I was able to speak with Souza before the meeting began and was gratified to hear in most parts of the United States farmers and fishermen work together. That isn’t the case in California but there is some hope in finding common ground.
Souza said the best solutions for conservation must be holistic. People are part of the environment and that can’t be removed. He said while he hasn’t engaged in SGMA (that’s not part of his duties) but he’s aware taking a possible one million acres out of production is going to have a tremendous impact on the environment.
Drought causes suffering in both the farming and environmental worlds. Delta smelt are in true danger. A massive amount of tagged smelt have been released. Good water years don’t appear to have a correlation with smelt increases. Salmon populations along North America’s Pacific coastlines are on decline. Why are salmon from not only the Delta but the Columbia River, the Puget Sound and up into Alaska having trouble? It would appear something is happening in the ocean independent of the estuaries. He said he’s seen situations like this before – species go down and create a panic mode before something is resolved.
Souza said everyone is asking him about the biological opinions and what changes could take place. He said the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project work best when they work together. He said it can be considered – Shasta is the water maker and the Delta is the water mover. He said DWR and the USBR are four years more educated since the last time the biops were discussed. He invited input from the public. The only biops required under federal law to submit drafts to the state and the relevant agencies is the Delta biops. He said don’t be shy about speaking up. The long fin smelt is also on the table this time.
The Voluntary Agreements are important and he urged the Friant board to engage in this and to realize the great relationship between the VAs and the biops. He said everyone may not get what they want but he sees the opportunity to have the six government agencies come together with ag in a more productive way than ever before for a better, more predictable water supply and a healthier environment. He said James Carvel the Ragin Cajun used to say there are no bad questions, just bad answers.
Tom Barcellos thanked Souza for this opportunity to talk. His question was what could be done to improve the survivability of hatchery salmon being released in the exact location where predators gather. Souza said the feds don’t operate hatcheries but do make releases. He said where salmon are released is where their homing kicks in. In order for the fish to return to a spawning area they have to be released in close proximity.
Souza said farmers and fishermen are very similar; hard working, trying to make ends meet. He said he never understood why the conflict is there. The salmon fishermen are in crisis as well as farmers. They are looking at new ways to enhance habitat like rice fields. Someone asked why there is so much deference given to striped bass. Souza said that is a consideration but that is a state issue and it gets complicated.
Joey Airoso, a local farmer commented the land in the Valley could be on the endangered species list as well. He said having the plentiful food supply, ground that takes generations to develop, put on the chopping block of fallowing up to one million acres is a poor choice. Souza said when hears about SGMA taking out that much land it doesn’t make sense. The combination is natural weather and regulations. During the drought he’d hear about storage and flows but what about in between. Groundwater recharge is a part of the natural environment.
Director Kent Stephens asked about the Delta sports fishery industry having the upper hand politically. Souza said the conversation about increasing hatchery production is going on with both the ocean and inland fishery interests. He said the fishermen he works with are not on a political wave. They are suffering as well as farmers. Smart policies have to work or be changed.
Phillips said this is the first post SGMA implementation of the biops and there will be a great deal of interest and focus by Friant on this matter.
Consent & Action Items
The consent calendar was passed. CFO Wilson Orvis gave his financial report. Today was budget day – oh joy – the proposed 2024 budget was the topic. Orvis walked them through the proposed and actual budget figures. Someone asked about donating to the California Farm Water Coalition and Arvin Edison General Manager (I’m not going to name him to avoid embarrassment) spoke up saying, “Food grows where water flows.” Good for him. It was kind of funny over on our side of the room. Friant COO Johnny Amaral is now on the CFWC board. By the way if you’re looking for a good source of farm water news, CFWC has a well-focused clipping service, or news aggregator as it is referred to by the young whipper snappers.
Orvis continued with his presentation saying there is more flexibility in operations if some pumps can be procured at a cost of more than $100,000 for Lake Woollomes. Orvis said this had to go to the finance committee due to the amount. This is technically a ratification of the money already being spent because the temporary pumps were needed on an emergency basis due to this winter and springs’ flooding. Director George Porter asked about set up costs, if I understood, and that was paid for by Kern Tulare ID, which clearly benefits from this.
Amaral explained staff looked over the benefits to determine the cost allocation. He said coming up with an equitable share of demands was difficult but it was all after the fact. The board voted for the finance committee recommendations that membership help pay for the pumps. Porter voted no. He represents Fresno Irrigation District. FID and the City of Fresno are very near Millerton Lake and one of the firsts to receive water from the canal. Both entities are sometimes reluctant to pay for things downstream of their location. Phillips said staff heard from the finance committee to not let this happen again without prior board approval. He said the committee discussion was thorough and I think they said policy will change for this type of expenditure.
Janet Atkinson of Stantec reported on the Friant Kern Canal repairs. Pouring concrete is still taking place at night due to the heat. I heard three siphons have been completed and that’s good news. This takes a lot of rebar and concrete. She went through some of the steps and machinery it takes pour the sides of a canal this big. When I was a boy I used to ride my bicycle along the bottom and sides of the California Aqueduct before the facility was watered. It was built with big machines moving along a slope as well.
Atkinson said there have been some problems with the big machines during August but she believes the challenge will be met with no delay to the construction schedule. At least Atkinson has hopes for the quality of the crew to meet this need. Amaral said there are also roads reopening by the end of September and that’s good news.
Ian Buck-Macleod said the recent Hurricane Hilary did bump up some of the precipitation in California but it didn’t impact the San Joaquin River watershed to any extent, just 20,000 a/f. He said Shasta, Folsom and San Luis Reservoirs could be into flood release zone by the end of the year. He said December may be a little early for SLR. This August is the highest water level in SLR on record for the month.
Buck-Macleod said upstream releases from So Cal Edison on the SJR could increase next month, I believe he said. In any event there won’t be a reduction in Class I allocations for Friant members this year, it’s holding steady at 100 percent. He said 300 cfs is being captured on the lower SJR and that could increase with Banta Carbona ID coming back online.
Mike Villines reported there are 1,800 bills in Sacramento to run through in the next two weeks. He said today is the last day for committees. The bad water bills were killed or altered this year. He said there will not be a water bond coming out of this legislation session. Mike McGuire will take over the Senate Pro-temp position from Toni Atkins at the first of the year.
Amaral reported the elected officials scram from Washington DC during this time of year as it is hot and humid. He thanked Shelly Abajian for Senator Dianne Feinstein authoring some pro-western water bills. He said the CFWC has a new social media director and things are moving forward. Also in the packet is the Family Farm Alliance report by Dan Keppen. If you’re not hip to the other FFA you need to tune in.
Amaral will be conducting a tour later next month. He said a South Korean news reporter kept him busy for a couple of hours. He said she was far better prepared and understood the issues better than most reporters he’s spoken with from the USA. No word on what station it will air on. There is also an ACWA Region Six & Seven meeting at Harris Ranch Inn next month. And how about this? The board retreat signups are setting records. That’d be a productive three days of sitting in meetings. No joke. Barcellos said Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy will be speaking in Bakersfield that evening and he’s attending. Barcellos said he was going and wanted to know if there was something to ask him specifically. Amaral said McCarthy knows the deal but he’d like to have him hear what Souza said this morning.
Superintendent Chris Hickernell reported they’re still on a hot streak for consecutive days in a row without an injury. Good for him and his crew. Hickernell’s O&M report in the packet was full of information. He said it takes backhoes and dump trucks to keep trash picked up along Friant property. This is a problem everywhere. The goat herd is near my home east of Clovis and they are doing a great job of weed control. Evidently are is very little vegetation a goat won’t eat.
Hickernell said the FKC delivered more than 300,000 a/f this month. Communication lines are being replaced and repaired. With this year’s flooding some of the wells and pumps along the canal were inundated and crews are refurbishing this. He said when the canal is dewater this November through February to expect panels to pop out of the canal banks. This always happens and isn’t a surprise. The weight of the water is part of what keeps them in place.
Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley
Austin Ewell, Interim Director of the Blueprint gave an update saying, “One goat to another.” He also said the Blueprint has brought on the Hallmark Group and criteria has been developed to rate the benefits of water projects. He asked everyone to submit projects.
Ewell said the California Water Institute located at Fresno State University has received a $1 million federal grant. PPIC will be holding a September conference at FSU about taking land out of production. The Blueprint is looking to partner with PPIC on alternative ways to deal with SGMA. November 2-3rd will have a farmer to farmer summit in the Delta. This was cancelled due to a strain of cooties that shut it all down for a while and now it’s back on.
Orvis reported on the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority activities. One of Friant’s greatest expenses is to partially pay for the Exchange Contractors’ water by funding SLDM.
Phillips said there was a tour of social media influencers last week. Mike Wade of CFWC was the one who put this together. Phillips was one of the tour stops. There were three women, one from San Diego on groceries, one a life coach, one a rancher from Texas. Phillips said the message was well received and reaching a vital audience.
Also 20 or so US Bureau of Reclamation policy folks from Denver heard from Phillips at Friant Dam and got the straight skinny. He also went to Los Banos yesterday to learn more about the repairs needed to fix the SLDMWA facilities.
We then bellied up to the buffet for some sweet taxpayer provided free food. Yes, I realize free food is an oxymoron or maybe an incongruous statement. Anyway things stopped meeting-wise at 12:22pm. That was that, go be good to each other and yourselves.
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ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright 2023 by Don A. Wright
FRIANT WATER AUTHORITY
The Friant Water Authority is a Joint Powers Agreement with 15 districts to operate and maintain the Friant Division of the Central Valley Water Project. Water from the San Joaquin River is diverted at Friant Dam at Millerton Lake to the Madera/Chowchilla Canal to the north and the Friant/Kern Canal to the south. More than one million acres of mostly family farms and numerous communities get their surface supplies from the Friant Division.
Board: Chair Jim Erickson, Vice Chair Rick Borges
Staff: CEO Jason Phillips, COO Johnny Amaral, CFO Wilson Orvis, Water Resources Manager Ian Buck-Macleod, Superintendent Chris Hickernell and Attorney Don Davis.