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Exporting Kings River floodwater doesn’t serve needy families

At the height of our state’s historic drought in 2014, more than two thirds of California voters cast their ballots in favor of Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond to fund water quality, supply, treatment and storage projects.

Three years later, the drought has ended – at least for now. But in the central San Joaquin Valley, we know that our region still very much needs to develop additional surface-water storage to capture runoff in above-average water years.

The California Water Commission is currently considering 11 proposed projects that are competing for $2.7 billion of the Prop. 1 funds set aside for storage, many of which are worthy proposals.

But another proposal, the project proposed by Kern County-based Semitropic Water Storage District (officially known as the Tulare Lake Storage and Floodwater Protection Project) aims to export floodwater from the Kings River exclusively for the benefit of interests outside of the Kings River service area.

With a price tag of over $600 million ($452 of which would be paid for with Prop. 1 funds), poses tremendous risks to the Kings River and to the hundreds of thousands of residents of Fresno, Kings, and Tulare counties who depend on its water. It has generated widespread opposition from throughout our region, and deserves to have its application for Prop. 1 funds rejected by the water commission.

Let there be no mistake – Semitropic’s proposal is a half-baked, “cart before the horse” proposal costing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, and is chock full of problems too great to overcome.

The Semitropic project proposes to use the California Aqueduct to transfer naturally occurring water supply from the Kings Basin, one of the most critically over-drafted basins in the state, to the Kern County groundwater basin.

The proposal comes despite the fact that Semitropic has no right or license to the waters of the Kings River and even though the State Water Resources Control Board has determined that the Kings River is “fully-appropriated.” In other words, there is no additional water available.

This project would negatively impact the lives and livelihoods of many people in Fresno, Kings, and Tulare counties who depend on the Kings River for water. The project poses direct threats to people’s right to access safe, clean, affordable and accessible water and threatens groundwater sustainability efforts.

The Kings River service area includes 51 “disadvantaged communities” – areas which most suffer from a combination of economic, health, and environmental burdens – with a population of 646,236. In addition, the area includes 59 “severely disadvantaged communities” with a population of 84,510.

In all, 69 percent of the population that relies upon the Kings and Tulare groundwater basins lives in a disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged community.

Depriving these communities of access to water and jeopardizing long-term sustainability – communities that already disproportionately suffer from poverty, high unemployment, asthma and heart disease, as well as air and water pollution – will only make already-difficult circumstances worse and threaten “the human right to water,” which is protected under California law.

Furthermore, by exporting water from critically over-drafted groundwater basins, the Semitropic project would make it nearly impossible for the Kings and Tulare basins and its seven Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The State Water Commission must consider the SGMA mandate to achieve groundwater sustainability prior to considering plans such as the Semitropic Project that directly jeopardize groundwater sustainability in the watershed of origin.

The precedent that would be set by allowing Semitropic to violate the principal of “local water for local needs” would have wide-ranging implications well beyond the Kings River service area.

Fresno County, Kings County, Tulare County (and numerous cities within the counties), the Alta Irrigation District, Consolidated Irrigation District, Fresno Irrigation District, Kings River Water Association, Kings River Conservation District, and others who would be directly impacted are opposed to Semitropic’s Prop. 1 funding application, as well as Semitropic’s application to the California State Water Resources Board to revise the fully appropriated stream status of the Kings River.

The California Water Commission should reject Semitropic’s application. Prop. 1 funds should not be granted to a project that runs directly counter to the public’s interest, harms groundwater sustainability efforts, and threatens access to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.