Spurred by challenges related to drought and the political nature of water in California, Friant Water Authority (FWA) will make some major staffing changes as it also sets out to draft a new strategic plan.
The duties currently undertaken by FWA General Manager Ron Jacobsma will be split into two roles at the completion of the reorganization as the authority hires a new chief executive who will report directly to the board.
Jacobsma currently reports to the board as the GM. He is responsible for day-to-day operations and maintenance of the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal system, which includes 60 employees and three operations and maintenance yards. Jacobsma has also been the public face of the organization, attending to policy and other discussions on behalf of its 21 member agencies.
That public policy focus and face of the organization will be assumed by the new chief executive. According to FWA Board Chairman Harvey Bailey, an executive search committee has been selected to work with the board on selecting a CEO.
“He’s been very busy,” Bailey said of Jacobsma as water issues and the daily maintenance and operations of the canal system compete for his time.
Bailey indicates that the authority continues to address a number of ongoing and urgent water supply issues; particularly as the likelihood of a fourth consecutive dry year becomes reality in California. Some believe that such an event could lead to the depletion of California’s surface water storage as reservoir levels are receding at a time of the year when they should be rising.
Friant’s chief concern is Millerton Lake near Fresno and the 520,500 acre feet of water capable of being stored behind Friant Dam. Millerton water is used to meet restoration flows on the San Joaquin River and is used by farms and cities for domestic and irrigation water from Chowchilla to Bakersfield.
Friant plays an important role in the Central Valley Project and for growers along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. The project was originally conceived as a state project to protect California’s Central Valley from crippling water shortages and devastating floods but was later assumed by the federal government. The federal CVP includes the Contra Costa Canal, Shasta Dam and New Melones Dam.
Under a long-standing contract with the federal government based on water rights that go back to the turn of the 20th Century, water from Friant Dam can be used to offset shortages of water to water rights holders in Central California that include farms in the Los Banos area.
These water rights holders are called “exchange contractors” because the water they typically receive from the USBR through northern California supplies can be “exchanged” with water from Millerton if northern California water is insufficient to meet contractual needs.
For the first time in history, those exchange contractors received Millerton water in 2014 as the USBR was unable to meet its contractual requirements from water stored in northern California. The net effect was a zero surface water allocation for east side growers, which has never happened in Friant’s history.
That move shook water users up and down the state and, according to Bailey, was part of the impetus behind Friant’s reorganization efforts.
According to Bailey the reorganization hopes to achieve two key priorities of the board: develop a long-term secure water future for the 31 water contractors in the Friant Division and to staff the organization so that these goals can be met.
FWA is a joint powers agreement representing member agencies from Madera County to Kern County who have water contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. While Friant exists to operate and maintain the canal system for the USBR, it also works to help shape public policy related to water issues in California.
Of the 31 federal water contractors in the Friant division, 21 are members of Friant Water Authority, which serves as a public agency formed by California law. Each member agency has one seat on the FWA board of directors.
In a normal year water from FWA is used to irrigate over one million acres of farmland in California’s agriculturally-rich Central Valley and provide drinking water for several Valley communities along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Much of that farmland is planted in permanent crops including citrus, tree nuts and grapes.
Much of this region has limited or no access to groundwater. Some communities in this region have no groundwater access and rely solely on FWA for their domestic water.
While some east side growers rely completely on FWA surface water through their member irrigation districts, others can use their full surface water allocations to partially or totally offset groundwater pumping.
The zero water allocation in 2014 meant that growers with wells were forced to pump at maximum capacity just to keep crops alive. In many cases, wells failed and water tables fell, which led to the failure of domestic wells along the east side of the Valley.
FWA directors also appointed new board-level committees to address strategic issues and goals and to direct staff on interim water supply issues.
The organization is also working to develop a strategic plan that Bailey believes will put FWA in a much better position to achieve its long-term goals and objectives.