One of Friant’s critical functions is to operate and maintain the Friant-Kern Canal. Built in the 1940s, the canal was operated by the Bureau of Reclamation until October 1986, when a group of Friant Division contractors formed the Friant Water Users Authority to assume operations and maintenance (O&M) of the canal.  In 2010, Friant Water Users Authority gave way to Friant Water Authority, and we continue the tradition of three decades of successfully operating the 152-mile-long canal on behalf of Reclamation and its customers. 


Friant staff replacing concrete panels along the Friant Kern Canal

Responsibilities & coordination

Friant’s Operations division is responsible for the daily water operations on the Friant-Kern Canal and filling of water orders in the Friant service area, and coordinates with Reclamation’s operators at Friant Dam. Staff in this division include canal system operators and technicians who ensure the canal operates properly and makes water deliveries to the Friant contractors who have ordered them.

The Maintenance division includes service yards located in Orange Cove, Lindsay, and Delano. Each group is responsible for maintaining successful functions and physical conditions for a portion of the canal, divided by mile post. Maintenance staff repair and maintain control structures in the canal, bridges crossing the canal, fences and gates, roads, and the canal’s liners and embankments. They also remove aquatic weeds and treat the canal with herbicides to prevent future vegetation growth.


The Friant Water Authority is facing a critical challenge right now -- one that has reduced our ability to deliver water to many Friant Division Contractor’s by nearly 60%. It is a challenge that must be met today if we are to ensure our long-term commitment to delivering high-quality, dependable water, in the amounts needed by farmers and cities in the San Joaquin Valley.



The Challenge

In early 2017, Friant Water Authority discovered a problem related to land subsidence that affects the Friant-Kern Canal’s carrying capacity and its ability to deliver water to Friant contractors near the southern portion of the canal. 


Alarming Signs of Subsidence

Evidence of subsidence was noticed when, at full capacity, water in the canal was running up against bridges it would normally pass under quite easily. 

The picture on the left shows water passing under the bridge at Road 96 as it likely looked prior to the most recent subsidence. The picture on the right shows water hitting the bridge at Road 96 under similar flow conditions.

A Legacy of Innovative Water Management

The Friant Division was designed to bring stability to the San Joaquin Valley’s groundwater supply, which was threatened at the beginning of the 1900s by decades of groundwater pumping. The Friant Division’s two canals – the Friant-Kern and the Madera – source high-quality surface water from the San Joaquin River that supports crops, cities, and groundwater recharge. This investment to establish the Friant Division has paid off by providing stable surface and groundwater supplies that created and sustain a world-class agricultural sector that in turn supports numerous communities and businesses. But in recent years, several challenges have reduced the ability of the Friant Division’s existing infrastructure to serve its intended purposes.


Subsidence and Canal Operations

The Friant-Kern Canal was designed as a gravity-fed facility and does not rely on pumps to move water. Subsidence (which is the gradual sinking of an area of land) has caused parts of the canal to sink in relationship to others parts. This negatively affects the canal’s ability to convey water. When the land elevation lowers, the canal must be operated at a lower flow-stage to ensure that water doesn’t overflow the banks.


Drought is the Driving Factor

From 2012-2017, California weathered its worst drought on record at the same time that increasingly stringent environmental regulations required more surface water to flow to the ocean. This forced San Joaquin Valley water users to rely heavily on groundwater supplies. In addition, in 2014 and 2015, the Bureau of Reclamation made a decision not to allocate to Friant Contractors their water supply from the San Joaquin River. This action caused most Friant districts to rely solely on groundwater resources to maintain their crops and protect decades of investments in what is among the highest-value, highest-production agricultural areas in the world. 

The graphic shows the areas of subsidence along the Friant-Kern Canal and the degree to which canal capacity has been compromised from its original design.

The darker blue, green and yellow shown in the far left bar are the areas of highest subsidence along the Friant-Kern Canal. The area of greatest subsidence is between the Tule River and Lake Woollomes, particularly in the area of Deer Creek.

The graphic shows that in that section of the canal the current capacity has been reduced to only 40 percent of designed capacity, with a significant portion of that loss happening in the last 6 years.

What Does Canal Subsidence Mean to You?

It means that even in 2017 – one of the wettest years on record in the San Joaquin River basin – Friant Water Authority cannot physically move the amount of water we should be able to deliver to farms and communities on the San Joaquin Valley’s eastside. It means that the Friant Division cannot operate to its full capability or in the way it was designed.


Is This a New Problem?

The Friant-Kern Canal’s carrying capacity has been compromised by various factors, including subsidence, since it began operation in 1951. In the past, water managers could manipulate canal operations to help mitigate some of the lost capacity. However, the new problem that emerged in 2017 is driven by rapid and severe land subsidence in the Corcoran/Tulare Basin areas, which are adjacent to the Friant-Kern Canal near Deer Creek. During 2015-2016, land elevations have dropped by two feet near Corcoran. There is no way to operate the canal to eliminate impacts to water users caused by this amount of subsidence. 


Impacts to Contractors 

All Friant Contractors who rely on the Friant-Kern Canal will be affected by changes in operations necessary to cope with the subsidence problem as reduced capacity along the canal will likely impact long-standing transfer or exchange partnerships among Friant Contractors, which have helped to balance water supply throughout the Friant Division. The Contractors downstream from the subsidence area (including Arvin-Edison WSD, Shafter-Wasco ID, South San Joaquin MUD, Kern-Tulare WD, Delano-Earlimart ID, Terra Bella ID, Saucelito ID, and Tea Pot Dome WD) will be most affected, however, because they may not get the amount of water they want during the time they need it. This may require farmers to turn to groundwater to make up for the shortage, which could exacerbate the subsidence that is causing the problem in the first place.

Sign Up for the Friant-Kern Canal Capacity Correction Project Mailing List

For additional information please contact:

Douglas DeFlitch
Chief Operating Officer

854 N. Harvard Ave.
Lindsay, CA 93247

(559) 562-6305


In 2017, Friant began implementation of the Friant-Kern Canal Pump-back Project, which will dramatically increase Friant Division contractors’ flexibility to receive and exchange water throughout the San Joaquin Valley. 


investing in more Flexibility

As a gravity-fed conveyance facility, the Friant-Kern Canal delivers water north to south. But in some cases, it could be beneficial to the Friant Contractors to have the capability to move water south to north, such as to return San Joaquin River restoration flows originally released from Friant Dam and pumped south from the Delta. This project will install three permanent pumps along the Friant-Kern Canal that will allow water to be delivered to the eastside from the westside of the valley through the Cross Valley Canal. 

The project, which is anticipated to cost approximately $10 million to plan and construct, began in 2017 and is currently in the planning stages. 


Aerial Snow Surveys of the San Joaquin River Basin

In Fall 2016, Friant Water Authority launched a groundbreaking aerial snow survey project in the San Joaquin River basin that will deepen our understanding of annual water supply availability for the Friant Division. It will also provide useful information to other agencies with flood management, hydropower, or water supply responsibilities.

The project is being conducted in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) out of its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which also operates the Aerial Snow Observatory (ASO) in the Merced, Tuolumne, and Kings river basins, and in the Eastern Sierra drainages to Mono Lake and the Owens Valley.


ASO relies on aircraft-based LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology to measure the depth of snow on the ground. When those measurements are compared to baseline measurements of ground elevation, the results indicate the snow depth. Researchers and water managers can then use that information to estimate how much water will be available and better predict inflow into reservoirs. During Winter 2016 through Spring 2017 aerial surveys were conducted monthly. At the peak of the wet season, the surveys measured approximately 2.7 million acre-feet in the upper San Joaquin watershed.


On September 13, 2006, a historic settlement (Settlement) was signed that brought the end to an 18-year lawsuit involving many members of the Friant Water Authority. The dispute resolved by the Settlement was over the operation of Friant Dam and longstanding legal claims brought by a coalition of environmental groups related to the river’s historic population of salmon. Since Friant Dam became fully operational in the late 1940s, approximately 60 miles of the river have been dried up in most years, eliminating salmon above the river’s confluence with the Merced River.


The Settlement includes two goals:

Water Management Goal

 To reduce or avoid adverse water supply impacts to all of the Friant Division long-term contractors that may result from the Interim Flows and Restoration Flows provided for in the Settlement.

Restoration Goal

To restore and maintain fish populations in “good condition” in the main stem of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River, including naturally reproducing and self-sustaining populations of salmon and other fish.


The Settling Parties include the Friant Division contractors, a coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the U.S. departments of the Interior and Commerce. The Friant Division contractors were represented in negotiations by Friant Water Users Authority, Friant Water Authority’s predecessor.

The Settlement requires specific releases of water from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River, designed primarily to meet the various life stage needs for spring and fall run Chinook salmon. The release schedule assumes continuation of the current average Friant Dam release of 116,741 acre feet, with additional flow requirements depending on the year type. For example, approximately 247,000 acre feet would be released in most dry years, whereas about 555,000 acre feet would be released in wet years. As a long-term annual average, Friant contractors will give up approximately 18 percent of their water supply.  Federal legislation was passed in March 2009 authorizing Federal agencies to implement the Settlement.


Additional Information

Stipulation of Settlement (September 13, 2006)

Press Release and FAQ

San Joaquin River Settlement Act

San Joaquin River Restoration Program