The Friant Water Authority held its Executive Committee meeting on Monday, January 18, 2021 remotely by Webex. Before the meeting began I meandered through the FWA website. It was interesting to take a look at the staff page. Unlike the board, all the staff had nice photos and succinct biographies. I watched a documentary this past weekend about the “A Team” of musicians who back up famous stars. That made me think the board is the “star” and the staff is the band, the management, the promoter. Getting water to growers is the concert.
Take a minute and read the biographies of Friant’s staff. It’s revealing, there is a lot of experience – which I think is even more valuable in many cases than formal education, not that they lack in that area. But it is good to see someone like Superintendent Chris Hickernell built up a business in private enterprise before coming to the public sector; as an example. I also wanted to mention Hickernell because his reports are usually written and approved without comment. Think about that. We’re talking about spending half a billion dollars on the Friant Kern Canal so you can be secure in the knowledge the maintenance of the facility is under great scrutiny. So, for the maintenance reports to go uncommented means Hickernell is doing his job and doing it well. Tell me I’m wrong.
Also in an unrelated thought, consider going to https://thewesterner.blogspot.com/ I get a weekly selection of essays based on the culture of farming and ranching in the Western United States. Some of it is funny, some very thought provoking and some of it is so politically incorrect it makes you smile if only sardonically that such obvious truth even needs to be stated. Steve Wilmeth is a friend to many in the San Joaquin Valley. He has farmed here and still stays in touch. He’s now in New Mexico ranching. It is a rare week when something Wilmeth writes doesn’t make me sit up and pay attention. WaterWrights.net has been fortunate to get to reprint some of his columns.
The Meeting Commences
The meeting began in closed session at 8:30am and reconvened in open session at 10:00am. Cliff Loeffler is the new Chair of FWA and he took a moment before starting to thank Chris Tantau for his leadership this past term. Edwin Camp is now Vice-Chair and there were other changes to the officers and such. The meeting began with public comment but no one had anything to say.
Action items were next and the minutes from the last executive committee meeting were approved. I couldn’t tell if the vote included the barking dog in the background but Secretary Toni Marie called the roll and the minutes have been approved without comment. Evidently the minutes were the only canine concern because he wasn’t heard from again.
Attorney Don Davis explained there are agreements that need to be addressed to keep the FKC repairs moving forward. The Smog fascists, I’m sorry the Air Quality Control Board, wants FWA to pay $102,000 to be allowed to spew dust and equipment exhaust into the air during construction. It’s not as bad as that, there has to be mitigation and the funds don’t have to be paid until construction begins. This agreement with the Air Board is called “voluntary” and I don’t know why. The Air board is not a popular entity, not because folks don’t want clean air but it can be a bit ham handed at times. The committee voted to recommend to the board it enter into this agreement.
The second agreement Davis brought to the committee was a MOA with four impacted districts for new pumpstations. The canal repair will require a new alignment of these stations. There will be cost sharing and if the new stations add a beneficial value greater than the existing station those costs will be above and beyond. The Kern Tulare Irrigation District built its own pumpstation. All the others were built by the US Bureau of Reclamation. The committee was in favor of recommending the board accept this agreement, although there will be individual agreements with the districts. Director Jim Erikson abstained as his district, Madera ID, isn’t on the FKC.
Friant Water Resource Manager Ian Buck-Mcleod gave his water report and the poor guy said there’s not much water so far. He said both Shasta and Millerton are down. There is a prediction of at least half an inch or more in the San Joaquin River watershed this weekend. There is a chance of a call on Friant water if Shasta’s water year doesn’t improve. Without enough water coming down the Sacramento River from Shasta into the Delta there isn’t as much pumping into the San Luis Reservoir. That sets up a conditions that threatens to tear apart the members of the Central Valley Project over sending water from Millerton Lake down the San Joaquin River instead of down the FKC. That’s a whole story in itself.
Buck-Mcleod said the Airborne Snow Survey funding isn’t nailed down yet. He said we need at least three inches of precipitation to tilt the scales in favor of supplies. An early February flight would be the normal time but since at this point there is only enough money for three flights that may be delayed a bit for more storms to hit.
Friant COO Doug DeFlitch said staff wants to make a report on the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority a standing report. DeFlitch said since so much of Friant’s budget goes to SLDM it is a good idea to keep informed. He reported a new debt management policy was presented at the last SLDM meeting and it didn’t have a self-funding provision for rewinding the pumps at the Jones plant. So Friant is requested that be included and provided a redline markup to SLDMWA. There will be some subsidence repairs on the Delta Mendota Canal and Executive Director Jason Phillips said Friant is looking at a $500,000 cap on its contribution.
Delano Earlimart ID General Manager Eric Quinley asked by way of the chat feature, “Do FWA’s redlines on the debt policy close the Friant exposure to any future debt issuance expense if the Friant payment is in cash?” A good question.
DeFlitch responded, “Its a work in progress, but that is part of the intent.”
Friant Kern Canal Repairs
Stantec Engineering’s Janet Atkinson reported the team is working with the Bureau for construction phase to begin. She said there was a productive meeting with the Tulare County Board of Supervisors that should result in an expedited MOU with the county. Tulare County has many roads with bridges over the FKC that will be impacted by the FKC repairs. She reported there has been progress with obtaining appraisals on land acquisition for the repairs. Davis said the major issue slowing things down isn’t so much opposition as the holidays were an understandable priority and landowners getting independent appraisals are not feeling hurried.
Phillips reported as necessary as it is to meet remotely to protect our health he doesn’t like to do so. He said the Executive Committee meeting isn’t just informational, it’s a forum for interaction with the directors. He said it’s good for those who wish to listen in and that option may remain – I’m glad to hear this – but he’s looking forward to the productivity of live meetings. I agree.
Phillips reported to the board the Pump Station MOU may be the biggest canal repair funding issue this month. But in February there needs to be a Bureau bid solicitation, cost share agreement between Friant and the Bureau, a budget determination and increased funding for ROW. He said the cost share is different than the reimbursement.
A milestone has been reached with the Eastern Tule GSA agreement. There is still some uncertainty in how much will be collected and when. Phillips said there is more discussion on that. He also said the review proposal and selection of a contractor will be coming up soon this year. While the Bureau is doing the hiring Friant will be at the table to keep an eye on the millions and millions of dollars involved.
There has been some brighter news on the funding of the repairs. In addition to an agreement with ETGSA there is more WIIN Act funds available. That’s about $246 million of federal funding. The non-reimbursable amount is estimated at $87.2 million.
Phase I is getting Segments D, E and F, or historic capacity regained. If there isn’t enough money for Segment F the project could continue but that wouldn’t be the preferred route. Segment F by itself is about $50 million. The entire Segment D, E and F cost would be $263.6 million. If ETGSA pays a lump sum it will be $125 million and the GSA has until the end of 2022 for the deal to be valid. If ETGSA wants payments the cost will go up to $200 million. If Segment F is to be included another $55 million may be needed from FWA. Phillips said there are other GSA negotiations going on so that number may be reduced.
To start construction FWA needs to spend $16 million on right of way. Cost estimates by quarter for the next four years will total about $103 million. How much and when the Eastern Tule money comes in isn’t nailed down yet. So FWA will most likely have to front some money. Phillips said they’ve looked at a worst case and best case scenario of ETGSA payments. He said a zero sum wasn’t even considered as it is not at all likely the GSA wouldn’t pay. He also said either way the cash flow has to flow. If it turns out to be as dry as it’s looking this year the ETGSA transitional pumping will be higher, so will the payment. But the GSA still has to raise the funds. Likely a 218 Election to secure the fees from the constituents. But the GSA still has to bond to raise the funds based on the 218 assessments so the money most likely won’t appear on Friant’s sheets until sometime in 2023. The committee packet is a public document available online. Phillips funding presentation was more in depth than this report reflects, if you’re interested in greater detail.
The next item was the external affairs update. Johnny Amaral gave the entire report as Alex Biering and Mike Villines were not available. He said FWA is working with a bipartisan group of legislators in Sacramento led by State Senator Melissa Hurtado for funding on the FKC repairs. Governor Gavin Newsom has stated he believes subsidence impacting canals needs to be addressed holistically. I guess he wants to fix them all at the same time which will end up as not fixing any of them until there’s a catastrophic failure.
On the federal side it’s been busy. The inauguration of the Biden/Harris administration takes place later this week. The Senate is now 50/50 dem/rep with Harris holding the tie vote. Amaral said to be sure and read Dan Keppen’s Family Farm Alliance newsletters. It is a treasure trove of information regarding water in the Western United States.
Amaral said to expect a virus relief bill soon that will include an increase of payments to individuals. There will be a huge amount of executive orders and executive order cancellations. An infrastructure bill is expected and he said Friant is well placed to take part in that effort. Loeffler volunteered Amaral’s accessibility. Good for him. Amaral is pretty accessible already.
Phillips reported he had a good meeting with Loeffler and Camp about Friant’s direction for this year. He reiterated his desire to meet in person. The calendar and meeting site is set. He said it may be early to discuss this year’s retreat but it is scheduled for the same place this coming November. An annual meeting has been set back to 2022. This meeting has value but with the virus and all, the annual meeting will be rested for a year. A series of workshops dealing with strategic planning are being prepared and Phillips said Friant staff is excited about updating things.
Phillips is on the Urban Water Institute. He was nominated for driving a Tesla and because the UWI realizes ag is an important facet to water. There will be a virtual conference next month and Phillips has been invited to set up SGMA panels and has some good presenters. He mentioned the CVP has hundreds of millions of dollars of true up winding its way through the process. He said the Office of Budget Management is fighting the Department of Interior and the Bureau about non-reimbursable funds. Phillips said attorney John Bezdek’s presentation to the OMB was very well done. He’s feeling positive Friant’s case is solid.
Loeffler then announced even more closed session. This time they are going to evaluate the Chief Executive Officer – Phillips’ performance. Good for him. I don’t know if that includes a raise or not but I’m confident Phillips will at least retain his position with the organization. So at 11:50am the public portion of the meeting ended.
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FRIANT WATER AUTHORITY
854 N. Harvard Ave., Lindsay, CA 93247, Office 559/562-6305 Email: email@example.com www.friantwater.org
The Friant Water Authority is a Joint Powers Agreement with 17 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.
Staff: CEO Jason Phillips, COO Doug DeFlitch, CFO Don Willard, Government Affairs & Communication Alexandra Biering, Water Resource Manager Ian Buck-Macleod, Superintendent Chris Hickernell, Chief of External Affairs Johnny Amaral, Director of Technology Christopher Hunter and Attorney Don Davis.