An unfinished section of the new Friant-Kern Canal suffered a “severe breach” at Deer Creek in Tulare County Friday night as the normally dry creek swelled with rain and snowmelt and overran its banks into the construction zone.
“This was worse than the one before,” said Johnny Amaral, Chief Operating Officer of the Friant Water Authority, at the authority’s executive committee meeting on Monday. “We haven’t gotten a handle on it yet but it’s tough to do anything out there right now with what we’re expecting tomorrow.”
He referred to another atmospheric river forecast to barrel into the state Monday night through Tuesday.
“The site is severely flooded,” he said of the Deer Creek construction area. “After the first breach, we had fortified it with what we thought was a good amount of rip rap but these flows have just taken over the whole area.”
He said cranes onsite are half underwater and crews can’t access areas where they had been taking dirt for fortifications.
“The good news is, the Friant-Kern Canal was kept in control so there’s no overtopping in the middle reach (the portion under construction) like a couple weeks ago,” Amaral added.
The Friant Water Authority is building, essentially, a second canal just to the east of the existing Friant-Kern Canal because the existing canal had sunk along a 33-mile section due to excessive groundwater pumping that caused the land beneath it to collapse.
The resulting “sag” crimped the canal’s carrying capacity from about 4,000 cubic feet per second down to 1,600 cfs in recent years. That created huge problems during larger water years when Friant contractors hoped to bring extra water into their districts to recharge groundwater that farmers rely on in dry years.
The nearly $300 million project started in January 2022 and was targeted at the worst pinch point near Deer Creek. Construction during this past January halted all flows to contractors south of Deer Creek, which caused frustration as water managers in southern Tulare and Kern counties sat looking at empty recharge ponds even as storms delivered heavy flows to northern Friant contractors.
The canal began deliveries to the south on February 1.
Now, water managers are scrambling to find places to put all the water barreling out of the Sierra Nevadas as warm storms melt the record snowpack. In fact, Friant-Kern Canal deliveries have been dialed back to 900 to 1,000 cfs because contractors just don’t have enough space, Amaral said at Monday’s meeting.
Even the Kern River, which will typically take Friant’s overflow, can’t take extra water right now, said Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority.
That puts the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Millerton Lake, in a tight spot as it needs to lower the reservoir for incoming runoff but there aren’t many places left to stash the water.
There was an opportunity to do that earlier in the year, Phillips said during the executive committee meeting. He referred to Friant’s request that the Bureau lower Millerton down to what’s known as “low point” or 135,000 acre feet in anticipation that the Friant-Kern Canal would be under construction and unable to move large amounts of water if it was a heavy winter.
Instead, the Bureau kept Millerton at 220,000 acre feet. And, indeed, the southern Sierra Nevadas are now under the heaviest snowpack in recorded history with more storms coming.
Phillips anticipated the old Tulare Lake bed would fill, inundating land owned by the J.G. Boswell Farming Company.
“There’s just no where else to put it all,” Phillips said.