The 680 miles of canals and pipelines largely date back to the '40s and '50s. Much of the work the Fresno Irrigation District does is maintaining those canals that draw from the Kings River. Photo contributed.
Written by Edward Smith
In the mid-19th century, water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers allowed the desert to bloom.
Beneath the summer heat, workers built canals that would shape the area’s future.
Today, the Fresno Irrigation District oversees the now-680 miles of pipelines and canals that deliver river water to growers and cities.
The year 2020 marks 100 years of FID taking on the work of bringing water from the Kings River to eastern Fresno County and beyond.
Through the decades, the job has grown from providing farm water to supplying cities including Fresno and Clovis, with other Fresno County municipalities looking to soon come down the pipe. And legislation seeking to manage groundwater usage has forced the institution to stay at the forefront of conservation and reliability.
On the Kings River system, 28 member entities fight for the flow that comes down from Pine Flat Dam.
In 2019, the Irrigation District delivered the longest water run to farmers in its history. Nine months of delivery brought 618,424 acre-feet of water to the district’s clients, according to FID’s annual report.
This year, a snowpack at 60% of average means only three months of delivery to growers. But that water comes at the hottest part of the year, a critical time for growers who need to keep plants hydrated, according to Ryan Jacobsen, board president for FID and president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
“Our farmers are able to use surface supplies, turn their wells off and are able to recharge their groundwater,” Jacobsen said.
Nearly 20% of irrigated ag land in Fresno County is within FID’s reach, he said.
The crops driving the ag economy have changed over the years.
In 1980, water from the Kings River supplied more than 76,000 acres of grapes with cotton coming up second with 21,000 acres. By 1999, almonds took the second spot and by 2019, the nut overtook grapes as the top crop drinking Kings River water.
But the water also has served communities.
Fresno County Supervisor Sal Quintero credits FID for keeping Southeast Fresno supplied even as the urban sprawl moved development northward.
“The irrigation district has had such a great impact on Southeast Fresno and its growth,” Quintero said. “It’s one of those agencies you don’t pay attention to, but it’s made such an impact.”
The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act put pressure on water users reliant on wells and aquifers. This put pressure on FID to provide even more cities water from the river.
The North Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency was created to work with FID to develop plans to provide sustainable growth, said Bill Stretch, general manager for the district.
Part of FID’s job is also to keep ground water levels replenished. Some 68,908 acre-feet of water went to basins in 2019 to refill aquifers.
“Taking water in wet years and letting it restore aquifers means saving water for the inevitable dry years in Fresno,” said Jacobsen.
But as more water is drawn, those water tables continue to slip westward, said Stretch.
Without adequate water sources, one study published in the Central California Business Review found as much as 20% of ag land — or 1 million acres — could be fallowed.
Today, Fresno and Clovis take about 35% of the allocation throughout the year, according to Jacobsen.
The future may bring communities such as Fowler and Malaga into the fold. Discussions have already begun with Kerman, Biola and Pinedale. Sanger has also begun growing into FID.
“We’re working out a better arrangement and water supply agreements with them to help them be sustainable and allow them to grow in a smart fashion,” said Stretch.
The district begins at a narrow point near Pine Flat Dam, broadening west as far as Kerman, north to the San Joaquin River and south to Easton, encompassing more than 250,000 acres.
“One of the next challenges is the aging infrastructure,” said Stretch. “There are a lot of old pipelines and a lot of old structures.”
Of the 360 miles of pipelines, approximately 45% are 50 years old. About 0.3% get updated every year, according to their yearly report.
The goal is to keep water supplied to sources.
“Our goal is, even with SGMA implementation, that no farmer will have to fallow any land and they can continue farming and cities can continue to be vibrant,” said Stretch.