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Friant-Kern Canal

A prominent feature in the Orange Cove area is the Friant-Kern Canal. The canal runs along the eastern border of the city.

The water in the canal is used for supplemental and new irrigation supplies in Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties. It is part of a U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation project, called the "Friant Division".

The "Friant Division" transports surplus northern California water though the southern part of the semiarid Central Valley. The main features of this division are Friant Dam, Friant-Kern Canal, and Madera Canal, all constructed and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Friant-Kern Canal

Water Usage / Purpose

Out of Millerton Lake Reservoir water is distributed to contracting irrigation dsitricts, water districts and local cities by way of the Friant-Kern Canal, that goes to the south, and the Madera Canal, that goes to the north.

Here in the Orange Cove area water management is provided by the Orange Cove Irrigation District.

Friant-Kern Canal Start
Friant-Kern Canal ` Start at Millerton Lake

Friant-Kern Canal at Orange Cove
Friant-Kern Canal ` Orange Cove

Friant-Kern Canal End
Friant-Kern Canal ` Finish at the Kern River


Construction of the canal began in 1945 and was completed in 1951. The canal has an initial capacity of 5,000 cubic feet per second that gradually decreases to 2,000 cubic feet per second at its terminus in the Kern River.

The canal is the largest 'lined' canal in the west, with almost 85 percent of it's walls being concrete-lined. In those sections, the canal`s maximum top width is 128 feet, decreasing to a bottom width of 24 feet, with water depth dropping from 19.9 to 11 feet. In the earth-lined sections, water depth varies, and the canal bottom width ranges from 64 to 40 feet.

Friant-Kern Canal and Dam
Courtesy of Fresno County Library, Circa 1945

By 1895, runoff from the Sierra snowpack was driving turbines to provide electricity to much of the city of Fresno. By the 20th century`s first decade, powerful electric motors were driving pumps to force water from ever increasing depths beneath the valley floor. The head of the Orange Cove Water District, southeast of Fresno, remembered that in the mid-1920s and early 1930s: `Our pumps were producing 150 to 175 gallons per minute. In 1931 they were producing 50 gallons a minute. The people were just pumping all the water right out of the ground.` The disappearing aquifer caused the abandonment of forty thousand acres in the late 1920s.

To capture and control the San Joaquin River, Reclamation in the mid-1930s designed a straight, 319-foot high concrete gravity dam would impound a half-million acre-feet of flows from the river, providing downstream releases to the fields of some 15,000 small farms. The first surveys for the Friant Dam commenced in November 1935, and studies of where to dig two delivery canals followed in early 1936.

Because of the dual complexities of moving water from one watershed to another and diverting the natural flow of the San Joaquin, a number of water rights claims had to be settled before construction progressed. California water law provides for riparian rights entitling a land owner on a stream to the full beneficial use of the stream`s natural flow. Reclamation could not divert water away from a stream until it settled the question of downstream water rights. Reclamation settled negotiations with the holder or the largest water rights claims on the San Joaquin in the spring of 1939.

Between 1935 and 1940, the population of the San Joaquin Valley exploded: Tulare County increased by 38.4 percent, Kings County by 38.5 percent, and Kern County by 63.6 percent. Reacting to a wartime demand, cotton became California`s `outstanding crop by the mid-1940s, displacing citrus. The lands of the Friant Division were no different, as cultivating and picking cotton drove each of the four counties economies. Almost a half-century later, by the 1990s, approximately 15,000 small farms, averaging 63 acres each, were spread throughout the Division. However, that figure is deceiving, as the average size of a farm in Kern County is 1,473 acres.

In 1933-34, when the State of California could not find enough takers to buy revenue bonds to complete the California Central Valley Project Act, it went to Washington seeking assistance. The passage of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1935 by the Congress put funding under Federal direction and construction under the Corps. By order of the President, $20 million was transferred from the Emergency Relief Act funds to the Department of the Interior for construction of Friant Dam and other initial features on September 10, 1935. The President signed the Act later that year.

Estimated cost of the Friant Dam and Reservoir came in at $14 million, the Friant-Kern Canal came in at $26 million, and the Madera Canal was $3 million. The Water Project Authority represented the State of California in negotiations with the Federal Government. In March 1936, the Authority signed a cooperative agreement with the United States creating three divisions, including Friant, for the Central Valley Project. Six months later, the Authority approved Reclamation`s prospective location of the Friant Dam and the Bureau`s design of the dam and canals. Central Valley Project legislation was reauthorized as the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1937. Along with Friant Dam and the Friant-Kern and Madera Canals, initial major features authorized were Shasta and Keswick Dams, the Tracy Pumping Plant and the Delta-Mendota Canal. The amendment transferred a $12 million authorization from the 1935 Rivers and Harbors Act earmarked for flood control and navigation to Department of the Interior. More importantly for Reclamation, the 1937 Act placed the CVP under Reclamation law. Additional funding under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1940 allowed for improvement of certain rivers and harbors in the interest of national defense.

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