The Friant Water Authority held its Friday, March 26, 2021 board of directors meeting at the Visalia Convention Center and on WebEx. I’ve been a Zoom man for some time now but I just read some disturbing news from a reputable source – Zoom won’t allow meetings that deal with firearms. As if the Constitution doesn’t matter. Now I’m very conflicted. Also, FWA has been holding meetings on Thursdays but had to shift to Friday this month. They’ve also been starting in closed session at 8:30am and going into open session at 10-ish.
Since we’re on the subject there is nothing immoral or illegal about starting a public meeting in closed session but public meetings are for – drum roll please – the public, that’s why they’re called that. Don’t get me wrong, Friant’s pretty good about starting its public portion on time. Some organizations not so much. I’m not going to name names but we’ve all experienced closed sessions that meander along while the public waits. Or course there are times when the availability of folks pertinent to the subject under discussion in closed session is limited or more recently, technical difficulties and that’s all completely understandable. However, there are some serial abusers who act like it’s a “let the public wait meeting” as opposed to the more traditionally held concept of “public meeting.” Thankfully occurrences of this problem are few and far between.
The agenda for this meeting is shorter than usual with four parts: Consent calendar, action items all having to do with the Friant Kern Canal repairs but for one call of funds, general updates and reports and closed session – which has only two items, negotiations involving the FKC repairs and one initiation of litigation for two potential cases.
Chairman Cliff Loeffler called the meeting to order at 9am I’m guessing. The password on the agenda had capital letters when the real password had both upper and lower case. So I wrestled with that trying to log in and missed the part where they decided to not follow the agenda and put action items after reports. Once I was able to get into the meeting the audio was spotty so I missed a good deal of what was being said.
Don’t you love a good consent calendar? Today’s agenda had just two items; approval of the minutes and a cash activity report/pay the bills. The board approved. If you’re new to the ways of special districts the consent calendar is a way for boards to place all the routine items under one motion. Any board member or member of the public can ask to have the item pulled from the consent calendar and looked at separately. FWA is a Joint Powers Authority that causes the agenda to be a little different than an irrigation district. Some entities have more items to place on the consent calendar than others.
Johnny Amaral said the Friant Watering Hole podcast recorded yesterday will soon be edited and released to the public on the Friant website. He said congressional ear marks are coming back after a decade of disrepute. They are now called federal spending something or other and each congressman presents his or her constituents’ requests so you have to go through the local elected representative.
Austin Ewell said the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint’s ad hoc committee has been meeting to refine the focus and direction to take. All the ag water interests are banding together but all other interests are still welcome and outreach is ongoing. Funding requests are also being updated. The technical committee is working to get the projects together in each area and maintain transparency. There is a Delta landowner willing to allow his property to be used as a test fish-friendly water screen.
There is now a budget for a facilitation team to work with the collection of drinking water, ag, enviro and local government interests meeting at Stanford under the San Joaquin Valley Water Coalition. Together they are working up a problem statement. Ewell is co-chairing the finance committee with Ann Hayden of the Environmental Defense Fund.
COO Doug DeFlitch gave the O&M report. I couldn’t hear it.
CEO Jason Phillips spoke about matters at the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority in Los Banos. Under Phillips there has been more interaction with SLDM which sure seems like a good idea since Friant pays SLDM a good deal of money each year.
Things got rolling when CFO Don Willard asked the members to pay the quarterly call for funds. The amount was $643,750 divided between 17 members. The members’ portions are based on the size of their contracts. The size of the contract and the allocations are figured together to arrive at the individual member’s amount which range from a high of $76,586 to a low of $20,745 this quarter. The formula itself appears to have first been introduced by an ancient Babylonian astronomer working for the United States Bureau of Reclamation. I’m not sure of the gentleman’s name but I believe he was the same person instrumental in setting both the milk and raisin pricing guidelines. The board approved the call for funds. The City of Fresno abstained.*
Stantec Engineering’s Janet Atkinson gave a report and attorney Don Davis said the acquisition of property right of way will cost $16 million. Friant doesn’t have it but the Bureau is willing to loan it provided the lands’ title will go directly to the Bureau. Which I guess isn’t really a loan. The original plan was for Friant to negotiate the land and then give it to the Bureau which was thought to be a better way to get things accomplished. I believe the Bureau has more federal hoops to jump through than Friant would. Davis said Friant will still be in the loop but there is now this extra layer.
Davis said the cost share agreement with the Bureau is one of four items requiring a resolution be adopted. He walked the board through it.
- There is a cost share agreement with the Bureau needed.
- There is a $50 million OM&R budget for Phase I of the project that must be approved.
- There is a need to authorize the use of OM&R emergency reserve funds needed for Phase I.
- And, there is a need to direct staff to finalize the acquisition of right of way and bring it back to the board for approval.
Davis said the cost share agreement with the USBR is allowed under the WIIN Act but there were concerns about the provision that construction start within the year. Preconstruction planning is considered construction so that’s no longer a problem. He also said although the proposed cost share is being enacted during Phase I the agreement will cover the entire project.
All the stuff Davis is talking about is in the packet which you can download from the Friant website. It’s all public documents and will provide details on why none of this is a carte blanc to merrily spend away. He said cash flow problems even have a way to be addressed before they graduate from a problem to a crisis. Davis said it a little more eloquently and was able to throw in the odd legalese term – lawyers love to refer to sub paragraphs.
Davis let the board know Zone Three funding is not expected to be a part of Phase I. He said staff understands there are many folks uneasy with Zone Three funding. BTW Zone Three is a proposed option where Friant contractors can put up extra money in exchange for extra capacity in the completed project. He just wants the board to know Zone Three is a last resort tool in the tool kit.
Next Davis spoke about the $50 million needed to get the construction started. He said it will be accounted for as an Operations Maintenance and Repair in the budget. He also said this is not the final budget and that won’t be before the board until May. The obligations by the contractors to this $50 million is subordinate to previous financial obligations. This agreement will not set any precedent for future financing methods.
The next two issues dealt with real estate. Staff is asking to dip into the OM&R emergency fund to purchase the needed right of way property. The reason to draw on emergency funds is to be able to get the land acquisition out of the way early. This money will be replaced in next year’s budget.
There are 16 pieces of property needed to complete the repairs. Three of them are owned by public agencies and the other 13 are family or corporate farms. Davis said some of the private landowners have even put off planting in anticipation of a land sale. It appears folks around here are well aware of the urgency of fixing this canal.
Davis asked if there were questions but reminded everyone this will be further discussed in close session. Phillips thanked the FWA Executive Committee for working so hard on this and the directors for pushing through extra home board meetings.
Loeffler asked for input from the board. Director Chris Tantau said there have been some concerns at his home board, Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District but they don’t want to stand in the way of the project. Other directors said there have been concerns, some to be worked out in closed session but the directors also thanked staff for including most of those concerns in the updates. Director Rick Borges said Tulare ID is ready to move forward.
Director George Porter, Fresno ID said his board is concerned with the USBR taking too big a role in this. Phillips said some of the Bureau’s involvement is at Friant’s request. He said in his experience the Bureau’s $250 million share of the costs – came with less strings attached than usual. Once more the audio broke down like my old ’77 Chev Camaro. When it started up again I heard Phillips say the contractors throughout the Friant Division had best become better organized from here on out.
Comments continued with Director Edwin Camp, Arvin Edison WSD saying it’s taken three years to get here. He said we have to fix this canal, there are some many people impacted. He also said he and his board have found reason to trust the FWA staff and anticipate doing so in the future. Two directors, Jim Erickson, Madera ID and Kole Upton, Chowchilla WD said they are just watching – probably because they are both on the Madera Chowchilla Canal portion of the Friant system. Brock Buche, City of Fresno said the city understands and appreciates the need but sees itself as a predominately disadvantaged community being asked to contribute to a project it won’t benefit from. So the city feels conflicted. Loeffler said his home board, Lindsay Strathmore ID has some concerns but also feels staff is helping to put together a workable plan. He said unity is important and realizes there are two sides to this subject. He said as board members legally representatives for their districts it is important to fix the canal.
Under public comment grower Tom Barcellos spoke saying there are sadly Friant contractors not at the table today who will be impacted. He said that looks bad. He said with SGMA and the environmentalists push there is no room for outsiders to smell blood. He warned about any further delay to reuniting Friant fully could be devastating.
It appeared that Barcellos had the last word before the meeting went into closed session. Phillips announced it is hoped the closed session discussion will be completed by 2pm and those on the Webex meeting could wait online to hear what happen then the screen went blank. Thanks Cisco. And that was that.
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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.