Project restores flow to 10 miles of Friant-Kern Canal

Karl Stock, regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation California-Great Basin, speaks at a ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of phase one of the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project off of Avenue 136 near Porterville June 21, 2024.(Serena Bettis)

Friant Water Authority and Bureau of Reclamation celebrate completing the first phase of the $500 million Friant-Kern Canal capacity correction project

TULARE COUNTY – A newly constructed 10-mile stretch of the Friant-Kern Canal has elevated both the canal bed and the spirits of those who rely on its water for irrigation as years-long issues with conveyance capacity are slowly being restored.

Phase one of the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project wrapped up this spring, providing relief to a portion of the canal in Tulare County. Construction crew members, state and local water officials and Valley politicians came together for a celebration of this milestone on June 21 at the site of the project’s origin along the canal, just south of Avenue 136 and a few miles west of Porterville. 

“When we started in 2017, knowing that we needed to do something fast, we put together a timeline that was super aggressive, … that we had to have water year 2024 molecules running through this canal right here, and outright that was like we just can’t go into water year 2025, and so that was something that we were adamant we were gonna meet,” Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips said.

The project, which broke ground in January 2022, built a new concrete-lined section of canal running parallel to the old canal between Avenue 136 and Avenue 64. A joint effort between the Friant Water Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation, the project eventually plans to replace 33 miles of the canal, with the second phase tackling portions north of Avenue 136 to 5th Avenue, just north of Strathmore, and south of Avenue 64 to Lake Woollomes.

Subsidence — the gradual sinking of land attributed in this case to groundwater depletion — has caused portions of the Friant-Kern Canal to lose elevation and sink in relation to other portions. This is a major issue because the canal is designed to move water using the pull of gravity, not pumps, and when portions of the canal upstream are lower than portions downstream, the water does not flow properly.

The issue was discovered in early 2017 along the southern portion of the canal when it became apparent that the top of the water was passing closer to bridges over the canal than normal. In some of the wettest years that followed the severe droughts of 2011-2017 and 2020-2022, the canal has not been able to transport the amount of water it should have due to these subsidence issues.

According to the Friant Water Authority, subsidence has reduced the authority’s ability to deliver water to many division contractors by nearly 60%. Areas with the most severe subsidence are located between the Tule River and Lake Woollomes.

The multi-million dollar project has received funding from federal, state and local allocations, including the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Eastern Tulare Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Total project costs are expected to come in at around $500 million.

canal party-ribbon cutting-26-24-sb
Valley politicians, state representatives and water authority officials celebrate the completion of phase one of the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project with a ribbon cutting off Avenue 136 near Porterville June 21, 2024. (Serena Bettis)

Phillips said phase one of the project encountered an “unbelievable number” of delays, including hold ups with permitting, engineering designs, funding and flooding that impacted construction, but the work of everyone involved helped them meet their goal to finish the section before water year 2025.

Jim Erickson, board chair of the Friant Water Authority, commended the authority staff members for the work they put into every project they work on. Erickson said that it’s the water authority staff who “live this water every year,” not the board, but when board members give the staff their “marching order of how we think we want to do things,” it gets done.

“It’s a miracle it’s happened,” Erickson said. “To be honest, I didn’t think it’d ever happen. I didn’t think we could get a bunch of farmers together and agree on this to get it done, and I told several people that I didn’t think we’d ever be able to do it. It’s been a real pleasure to be on the board and be involved.”

Also present at the event was Congressman Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Congressman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, DWR South Central Regional Manager Steve Doe and Bureau of Reclamation California-Great Basin Regional Director Karl Stock and Deputy Regional Director Kristin White.

A start date for the second phase of the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project has not been announced, but the phase has received $22 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

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