Eight years, ten miles and $325 million later, first phase of Friant-Kern Canal fix celebrated

June 21, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
The Bureau of Reclamation and Friant Water Authority held a ribbon cutting event to commemorate the completion of the first phase, a 10-mile stretch, of construction to repair the Friant-Kern Canal, which has sunk due to over pumping. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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Sun-kissed waters flowing south in the Friant-Kern Canal provided a perfect backdrop on a hot summer morning for a ribbon-cutting celebration that drew more than 100 people, including a who’s-who of local, state and federal water managers. 

An upbeat mood pervaded the gathering Friday, June 21, which marked the completion of Phase I of the Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project. As its name suggests, the massive, $325 million construction project in the middle portion of the 152-mile long canal adds room to the canal’s carrying capacity. About 1,000 cubic feet per second, to be exact.

The rebuilt section of Friant-Kern Canal, at bottom, with the old canal, top, at the crossing of Deer Creek in Tulare County. COURTESY: Bureau of Reclamation

“We identified this project in 2017, broke ground in 2022, and in 2024, we’re holding a ribbon cutting,” said Kristin White, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s California-Great Basin region. “This has got to be a record for a federally-led infrastructure project.” 

The canal is owned by the federal government but operated by the Friant Water Authority.

This ten-mile stretch was targeted because it had suffered the worst impacts of subsidence from excessive groundwater pumping by neighboring landowners. 

In total, the canal has sunk along a 33-mile section from about Pixley to the Kern County line. That massive sag has reduced the canal’s carrying capacity by up to 60%. 

An entirely new canal had to be built to the east of the existing canal. Friday’s ceremony marked the completion of just one phase of the overall project.

There is no timeline for the next phase as funding is still being identified, said Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips. Thanks to inflation, the estimated $500 million cost of the entire project has been surpassed.

“By the end of the calendar year, we should have a finance plan in place,” he said. He is hopeful the partnership established between state and federal agencies will continue, allowing the full project to be completed in the next 10 years. 

But continued subsidence has created a lot of uncertainty for the project.

Areas surrounding the new construction have already sunk by a foot and already crimped the rebuilt canal’s capacity. An additional 250 cfs should have been flowing through it Friday, said Karl Stock, Reclamation’s California-Great Basin regional director.

“That is significant,” especially during the uncontrolled flood releases from Millerton Lake this spring, he said. That extra capacity would have translated to 38,000 acre-feet of water that could have gone toward recharge or irrigation.

That also makes more federal funding difficult, said Congressman Jim Costa.

“We’ve got to get different results,” Costa said. “The disputes have to be resolved because we won’t be able to get the funding if these problems aren’t fixed.”

He referred to an ongoing lawsuit the Friant Water Authority filed against the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency accusing it of not doing enough to stop overpumping and causing continued damage to the canal.

While speakers including Costa and Congressman Vince Fong applauded the effort to complete this section of the project, the realities of over pumping could not be ignored.

“We learned some hard lessons in this project because of subsidence,” said Stock. “We are going to lean into that challenge in a bigger way than we have before. It’s an issue we have got to get our hands around.”

The canal was first opened in 1951 bringing water from the San Joaquin River out of Millerton Lake down the east side of the valley all the way to Arvin. It serves more than one million acres of farmland and 250,000 people, including several small towns.

Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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