The Friant Division of the Central Valley Project (CVP) includes Friant Dam and Millerton Lake, the Madera Canal, and the Friant-Kern Canal, which collectively store and deliver water to more than a million acres of farmland and several cities on the east side of the southern San Joaquin Valley. The Friant Water Authority, a public agency representing a majority of the Friant Division’s water users, operates and maintains the Friant-Kern Canal, which supplies San Joaquin River water stored at Millerton Lake to more than 30 irrigation districts that serve 15,000 family farms. Irrigation Leader spoke with Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips about how the organization is dealing with drought, land subsidence, and regulatory issues.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Jason Phillips: I have been the CEO of the Friant Water Authority for just over 6 years. Before this, I spent 15 years with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Sacramento office in what is now called the California–Great Basin Region. Its territory stretched as far north as the Klamath basin and went down through California’s Central Valley to Kern County and included all the Reclamation projects within that footprint. I had a variety of responsibilities, ranging from serving as a project manager in the planning division and as an area manager at the Klamath Project to helping to address the drainage issue on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side. I was the program manager for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program and finished my time at Reclamation as the deputy regional director in Sacramento.
Irrigation Leader: Please introduce the Friant Water Authority.
Jason Phillips: About half a dozen water users formed the Friant Water Users Authority roughly 70 years ago, although our original name was slightly different. At the time, Reclamation was completing Friant Dam and the Friant- Kern and Madera Canals and was negotiating its first water contracts. The water authority negotiated the Friant Division water contracts. Today, it serves about 32 contractors. In 1986, Friant Water Users Authority, our predecessor organization, began operating the 152‑mile Friant-Kern Canal on behalf of the federal government. We recently renegotiated that work contract, so we’ll be operating the canal under the new agreement for the next 35 years.
Irrigation Leader: Where does the Friant Water Authority get its water, and what determines the allocation that it receives?
Jason Phillips: The Friant Division contractors that we represent get water from the San Joaquin River basin that is impounded at Friant Dam and stored at Millerton Lake. This supply averages about 1.8 million acre-feet per year. In terms of how the water gets allocated, Reclamation first has to make releases to some riparian rightsholders immediately below Friant Dam. Then, there is an allocation based on the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement, a legal settlement among Friant contractors, the United States, and several environmental groups. The Friant allocation specifies amounts based on contractors’ rights to the river and their demands. It’s an estimate every year of how much they’re going to use. The legal settlement allocates a certain amount of water to river restoration based on a formula that takes hydrology forecasts into account; the rest of the supply in Millerton Lake goes to Friant contractors.
Irrigation Leader: How much water do you deliver per year, and who are the recipients?
Jason Phillips: We deliver water to more than 30 irrigation districts and cities and to 15,000 family farms. While the farms range in size from a few dozen acres to several hundred, the average farm covers about 100 acres. After the riparian amount is taken out and the river restoration settlement amount is determined, the first 800,000 acre-feet that are available go to what are called class 1 contractors. In some years, that’s all we have available. When available, the next 1.4 million acre-feet go to class 2 contractors. There are some contractors who only have class 1 rights and some who only have class 2 rights, but many have both. Those contracts were designed specifically to reflect contractors’ capacity for groundwater recharge (typically using class 2 supplies) versus applying water directly to crops (typically using class 1 supplies). On average, we deliver about 1 million acre-feet a year, but that can vary a lot depending on the water year. It can sometimes be over 2 million acre-feet; this year, it might only be 100,000–200,000 acre-feet.
Irrigation Leader: What are the main irrigated crops in your service area?
Jason Phillips: In the San Joaquin Valley, which is the area we serve, there are well over a million acres of farmland that rely, at least in part, on Millerton Lake water. We service four of the top five counties in the country in terms of agricultural production. The top crops are almonds, citrus, milk and other dairy products, pistachios, and table grapes. Historically, there was a bit more alfalfa and cotton, and there’s still at least a little alfalfa production that supports the dairy farms in our region.
Irrigation Leader: Do those farmers mainly just use the water Friant delivers, or do they also use groundwater?
Jason Phillips: That varies. Some growers have large surface water contracts and can meet most of their demand that way. Others have a small amount of surface water and rely heavily on groundwater. In the San Joaquin Valley, that can vary from one parcel to the next. That’s one of the reasons we see subsidence issues throughout the east side. Even though there are good surface water contracts, I’d say that most of the farmers there are at least somewhat dependent on groundwater, which historically was viewed as a backstop supply during droughts. In dry years when less surface water is available, more and more people are pumping groundwater.
Irrigation Leader: What issues has drought been causing for the authority and for local water users?
Jason Phillips: On the east side, and even to a certain extent on the west side, we’ve had less surface water. More recently, the drought and regulatory-induced shortfalls have resulted in Friant contractor supplies being delivered to riparian users downstream. There are two types of riparian users downstream of us. One group of users is immediately downstream; they always get the same amount of water. Farther downstream, there are a couple hundred acres of farmland for which the federal government purchased water rights from Millerton Lake in the early 1900s and developed agreements to meet the landowners’ water needs using Sacramento River water pumped from the Delta through the CVP’s Delta-Mendota Canal. When Reclamation can’t deliver enough Sacramento River water to these landowners, who are known as the exchange contractors, it turns to Millerton Lake and delivers water directly out of the Friant supply. Because of the regulatory-induced shortfalls affecting the CVP, exacerbated by the recent severe drought, these deliveries have occurred in 5 of the last 8 years. They had never before occurred during the CVP’s 70‑year history. That is worsening our surface supply situation, which in turn is causing more overdraft of groundwater aquifers. This overdraft is causing not just subsidence but a significant drinking water problem, especially for many vulnerable communities. Throughout the east side, dozens of farm communities rely completely on groundwater. Their wells are only so deep, and they don’t have the resources to drill new wells, and because the groundwater table has dropped over the last couple of decades, several of these communities are now going dry every summer. In fact, according to the State of California, more than 300 wells have gone dry in the past 12 months alone. Unfortunately, even more communities may literally have no safe water to drink this summer. The only water available to them may be either trucked-in bottled drinking water or water that is unsafe because the contaminants in the aquifers aren’t flushed out with surface supplies.
Irrigation Leader: Tell us more about the subsidence issues in your area.
Jason Phillips: Groundwater overdraft has been a problem for 100 years, but it’s definitely gotten worse. Land subsidence occurs as the groundwater table drops and formerly wet soil dries up and compacts, making the ground level drop. It doesn’t happen uniformly across the whole valley; it happens in the pockets where groundwater overdraft is worst. One of those pockets where it has been really bad is right underneath the Friant-Kern Canal, starting about 88 miles from where the canal starts and continuing along it for about 30 miles. That 30‑mile stretch has subsided substantially, and the subsidence has been most dramatic within the past decade. One of our most important projects right now is to restore the canal’s capacity so that we can move water supplies through that area. When we are not able to deliver, people have to turn to groundwater.
Irrigation Leader: Can you describe other efforts you’ve carried out to address that, such as the Friant-Kern Canal middle reach capacity correction project?
Jason Phillips: We’ve identified several areas along the canal that need repair. The middle reach is the worst affected, having lost more than 60 percent of its designed capacity. For the last several years, we’ve been partnering with Reclamation to get a major construction project started. Reclamation and Friant, working as partners, just initiated phase 1 of construction of what we call a parallel reconstructed canal. That 10‑mile stretch is scheduled to be completed in January 2024. Based on the engineering studies and the alternatives we compared for this particular reach, it made the most economic and engineering sense to realign the canal. Instead of replacing dozens of bridges at road crossings, we will move the canal underneath the roads in a siphon. When the project is complete, the tie-ins at the upper and lower parts of the new canal will be connected to the existing canal. When we start deliveries in 2024, it will be through the new reach. This project will restore the capacity to 2,750 cubic feet per second. We’ll restore the canal to its full capacity of 4,000 in phase 2.
Irrigation Leader: Is there anything you would like to add about how groundwater overdraft is being addressed in your area?
Jason Phillips: Most of the areas with the greatest overdraft are affected because of a lack of surface delivery. The new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) will bring the groundwater basins into a sustainable balance by 2040. That’s what we’re going to have to rely on over time to slow or halt subsidence. We probably have 20 or more groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) in the Friant-Kern Canal’s service area. We’ve been negotiating settlement agreements with the GSAs in the area of the canal most affected by subsidence according to which the GSAs will closely manage how much groundwater overdraft is allowed between now and 2040. The GSAs are also contributing to the fix financially. We’ve negotiated arrangements according to which they will continue to have some additional overdraft over the next 15–20 years and will help pay for the construction of the project.
Irrigation Leader: In addition to some of your infrastructure projects, are you engaging in any groundwater modeling or research into the functioning of the aquifers?
Jason Phillips: We mainly rely on the GSAs to do that. Most of the GSAs are made up of water districts and irrigation districts, and a lot of those entities are also part of our water authority. We do have our own groundwater modeling consultants, who are reviewing the models that are coming out and providing real-time input regarding whether we believe that the work that is being done is adequate.
Irrigation Leader: What are your strategic plans for the future?
Jason Phillips: We place a high priority on strategic planning. Our strategic plan, which we update each year, has goals for both how we operate and how we contribute to the valley and our partners. Continuing to correct and restore the capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal is a high priority. Like almost everyone else relying on the CVP and the State Water Project in the San Joaquin Valley, we are interested in turning the tide of the deterioration of water supply reliability in the Delta. We’re interested in working with Reclamation and the regulatory agencies to increase the reliability and sustainability of Delta supplies. Along with that, we want to better capture, move, and use surplus water when it’s available, both in the San Joaquin River basin and in the Delta.
We’d also like to minimize the amount of land retirement that’s required. The implementation of SGMA will require the halt of groundwater overdraft by 2040. The only way to do that will be to stop pumping in many areas, and that’s going to shut off water to a lot of farms. For many of those farms, finding an alternate surface water supply will not be realistic. We’d like to minimize the amount of land that is retired so that we don’t see our communities face unemployment and decline. We’re continuing to work with water policymakers in Sacramento and Washington, DC, to make sure they see the benefits of farms and farming communities in California.