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Prop 3 failed, so what's next for the ailing Friant-Kern canal?

The Friant-Kern canal is the primary north-south water conveyance system for the east side of the Central Valley. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

Local water officials went back to the drawing board Wednesday, looking for a way to fund needed repairs to the Friant-Kern canal.

The canal is damaged and requires an expensive project to repair. Farmers and water districts hoped voters would authorize the state to foot the bill by approving Proposition 3.

They didn't.

The Friant-Kern is like a big water highway. It delivers water from Millerton Lake to farms all over the south valley. An Eyewitness News analysis found that the canal is directly involved in the production of approximately $2 billion of crops every year.

The canal's problems are tied to subsidence. For decades, farmers all over the south valley pumped more water out of the ground than was put back. This imbalance caused the land to sink. There are large swaths of the valley that have a lower elevation than they did 50 years ago.

The canal works because of gravity.

There's a gentle slope from the lake all the way to Bakersfield. But large depressions in the land have interrupted the downward slope, rendering the canal far less efficient.

Prop 3 would have invested hundreds of millions in construction to bring the canal back to its usual capacity.

Critics of Prop 3 called it a bailout for wealthy agriculture interests who are to blame for the subsidence problem in the first place – something not everyone in agriculture or water politics would disagree with.

But to grow food, farmers of all sizes need the canal. And if farmers are forced to pay for the canal's maintenance themselves, the costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers at the grocery store.

"The cost of water drives the cost of the product that's produced on the farm," said Eric Averett, the general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water District, which uses water from the canal. "And so, whether it's repairing the Friant-Kern canal or whether it's just the price of water adjusting to reflect the market conditions that I think are going to come, that has to translate into an increase in the commodity price, whether it's the grape or the almond."

A call to the Friant Water Authority for comment was not returned.

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