Friant-Kern Canal fix gets over major hump

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completes environmental documents on its plan to repair a 33-mile stretch of the canal that is sinking between Lindsay and McFarland

SACRAMENTO – The plan to fix subsidence in the Friant-Kern Canal and restore water deliveries to farmers in southern Tulare County and Kern County got over a major hump last week.

On Sept. 18, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the Friant-Kern Canal, released final environmental documents for its plan to repair a 33-mile stretch of canal between Lindsay and McFarland. The final environmental impact report represents a significant milestone in beginning work to restore flows to the lower third of the 153-mile long canal running along the Valley’s east side.

“Restoring the capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal is critical to providing reliable water supplies to one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the nation,” Reclamation regional director Ernest Conant said. “We are pleased to reach this important milestone for one of Reclamation’s top priority projects.”

This stretch of the canal has lost 60% of its original conveyance capacity due to subsidence—a sinking of the earth from groundwater extraction—which was accelerated during California’s historic drought from 2012-2017. Friant Water Authority, which operates the canal, is working with Reclamation to meet state and federal environmental law requirements for the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project. The project would restore capacity from the current estimated 1,600 cubic-feet-per-second to the original 4,000 cubic-feet-per-second in the most critical area near the Deer Creek check structure (milepost 103).

“Today’s announcement marks another important step forward in fixing subsidence on the Friant-Kern Canal with the completion of the required environmental reviews for this project,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-23) said. “Once completed, it will restore the canal’s capacity to bring water to the families, communities, and farms located along the eastern side of the southern region of the San Joaquin Valley, including many communities that I represent in Kern and Tulare Counties.”

There are two options to restore water flow through the subsidence zone. The preferred option, called “Canal Enlargement and Realignment,” proposes raising the embankment and liner along 13 miles of the Friant-Kern Canal to allow water to pass over the sunken section while also building a parallel canal along 20 miles of the western bank of the canal to bypass the section. This option would require the bureau to acquire 510 acres of private land and 2.5 million cubic yards of dirt.

The second option, simply called “Canal Enlargement,” would raise the embankment and liner, widen and raise 20 miles of the canal in the subsidence area and install four miles of a bypass canal to the east where water would be pumped through turnouts and road crossings. This option would require USBR to acquire 144 acres of private land and 6 million cubic yards of dirt.

Both options would require the project to modify turnouts, changes to road crossings, changes to check structures, wasteways and siphons at Deer Creek and White River, modification of utilities, acquisition of private land for new right-of-way, the need to borrow material, and environmental commitments and mitigations.

“Without the canal, over one million acres of rich farmland would be put out of production, devastating families and farmers in the Valley’s eastside,” Congressman Devin Nunes said. “We have studied how to repair the canal for several years, and with this document complete we can finally move forward with construction and restore essential water supplies to our farms, small businesses, and communities.”

The Friant-Kern Canal delivers water to more than one million acres of highly productive farmland between Fresno and Bakersfield. The diminished capacity in the canal has resulted in up to 300,000 acre-feet of reduced water deliveries in certain water years with effects farmers and communities in the middle reach of the canal (milepost 88 to milepost 121). The Project would restore capacity from the current estimated 1,600 cubic-feet-per-second to the original 4,000 cubic-feet-per-second in the most critical area near the Dear Creek Check Structure (milepost 103).

The California Farm Bureau Federation noted that not doing the project would amount to the loss of 150,000 acre per year, which was noted in the project’s “No Action” alternative to the project. The no action plan stated the canal would lose another 6% of its capacity beginning in 2025, when an additional 67,000 acre feet per year is taken as part of the San Joaquin River restoration, and another 10% in capacity by 2025, when the canal is expected to sink another 3 feet due to subsidence. There are even estimates the canal could sink another 9 feet by 2070 if the subsidence is not addressed.

“Having the full capacity of the Friant-Kern Canal is not only critical to support the long-term sustainability of the Friant division and the more than one million acres of productive farmland it supports, it is also critical for the entire San Joaquin Valley’s efforts to balance its groundwater resources,” Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips said. “The Trump Administration has made the effort to restore the capacity to the Friant-Kern Canal a top priority. As the operator of the canal and representative of districts that depend on its supplies, the Friant Water Authority appreciates the Bureau of Reclamation’s commitment to complete this project as soon as possible.”

Construction of the canal enlargement and bypass is estimated to take up to three years. The $500 million project will likely be funded through a combination of state and federal funds as well as matching funds provided by irrigation districts and municipalities who receive water from the canal.

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