Water agencies break ground on work-around for sunken canal

Phase 1 of repairs to Friant-Kern Canal will construct a new bypass canal along 10 miles between Porterville and Ducor

Terra bella – Local, state and federal agencies and officials gathered in rural Tulare County Jan. 25 to break ground on a massive project to unclog the main surface water arterial for the San Joaquin Valley’s eastside. 

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal, the Friant Water Authority, which operates the canal, and California Department of Water Resources, which regulates the water within it, held a joint a press conference along the banks of the Friant-Kern Canal near the intersection of Avenue 95 and Road 208 west of Terra Bella to celebrate the groundbreaking of a $187 million construction project to restore capacity in a 10-mile portion of the canal. 

“While many water projects throughout the West take decades to plan and implement, this project is turning dirt today and will in a few short years restore critical water deliveries that support the San Joaquin Valley’s businesses, communities, and farms,” Friant Water Authority Chief Executive Officer Jason Phillips said . “This effort wouldn’t be possible without the support of our local, federal, and state partners, all of whom deserve credit for this major milestone.”

The Friant-Kern Canal supplies 15,000 small farms and a quarter of a million people with water between Fresno and Bakersfield but in the lower third of the water users have had their supply cut by 60% due to subsidence of the gravity-fed canal, including the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District, Kern Tulare Water District, Sausalito Irrigation District, Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District, South San Joaquin Municipal Utility District, Tea Pot Dome Water District, and Terra Bella Irrigation District. The event marks the beginning of Phase 1 of a multi-phased construction project, known as the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction, to restore capacity in a total of 33 miles of the existing Friant-Kern Canal damaged from subsidence—a sinking of the earth from groundwater removal – from south of Lindsay to north of McFarland. 

The Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo highlighted the Department’s ongoing investments in water management and drought resilience projects.

“Drought, climate change, and less certain precipitation events call for the need to develop innovative and sustainable water management solutions,” Assistant Secretary Trujillosaid . “This project will increase water supply reliability in the San Joaquin Valley and symbolizes the benefits of working together with partners to develop ways to utilize the significant investment opportunities to modernize infrastructure that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law can provide.”

Phase 1 of the project includes constructing 10 miles of new concrete-lined canal to replace one of the worst pinch points of the canal’s subsiding middle reach. The project is funded by Reclamation, Friant Water Authority, and DWR. Phase 1 of the project is anticipated to be completed and fully operational by January 2024.

“Today’s celebration symbolizes what can happen when federal, state, and local agencies partner together to address water supply challenges,” Reclamation Regional Director Ernest Conantsaid . “The groundbreaking marks a critical milestone in one of Reclamation’s highest priorities to provide water supply reliability to one of the most productive agriculture regions in the nation. We are very pleased to get the project underway.”

The 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal plays a critical role in delivering water to 1 million acres of highly productive farmland and more than 250,000 people from Fresno to Bakersfield in Central California. Since the canal’s construction in 1951, more than 60% of its original conveyance capacity in the middle reach has been lost due to land subsidence.

Future phases of the project include raising the sides of the original canal, widening sections of the canal and improving roads and bridges along the canal. Only about $300 million of the $500 million price tag for the entire project has been secured, mostly with federal and local money. About $206 million in funding was approved as part of the Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations package passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in December 2020. A minimum of $125 million in funding provided by a landmark agreement with the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency along with $50 million in local funding provided by Friant-Kern Canal contractors. After two failed attempts to pass legislation specifically to fix the Friant-Kern Canal, which would have provided as much as $400 million for the project, the state has only earmarked $39.2 million for the project.

“This project symbolizes the importance of strong partnerships so that we can address critical repair needs on our state’s aging water infrastructure,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said . “Restoring the capacity of our existing infrastructure is an important step toward diversifying water supplies by supporting groundwater replenishment throughout the Central Valley and water recycling projects in Southern California.”

The Friant-Kern Canal delivers water to more than one million acres of highly productive farmland between Fresno and Bakersfield and is the primary source of water for the communities of Orange Cove, Strathmore and Lindsay. The diminished capacity in the canal has resulted in up to 300,000 acre-feet of reduced water deliveries in certain water years which affects farmers and communities in the middle section of the canal.

One of the Friant-Kern Canal’s primary functions is to deliver surface water to be used in lieu of groundwater or to recharge groundwater aquifers. As a result, restoring the capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal is critical to the southern San Joaquin Valley’s success in complying with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, in additional to achieving water quality and water supply goals for small, rural, or disadvantaged communities on the eastside.

“This year will mark a turning point in human security due to the increasing water scarcity across Western States,” said State Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) said. “Now more than ever we need to secure clean water for generations to come. Today’s groundbreaking will allow us to conserve this precious natural resource that represents life, food, good health and so much more. This major milestone is the hard work of many men and women before me.”

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