Hundreds of millions required to fix critical water infrastructure damaged by subsidence

A small portion of the Friant-Kern canal is pictured near Wasco, Calif.  (KBAK/KBFX photo)

There's a $300 million problem with a major piece of water infrastructure that threatens the future of Kern County's bountiful and profitable crops.

In the Central Valley's complicated web of water infrastructure, there are two major canals that are of particular importance to Kern County's agriculture, the California Aqueduct on the west side of the valley and the Friant-Kern canal on the east side.

An Eyewitness News study of crop reports and data pulled from numerous water district sources revealed that $2 billion of annual farming revenue relies directly on water delivered to farmers by the Friant-Kern. But the Friant-Kern isn't operating at remotely the level it should, thanks to what scientists refer to as subsidence.

Subsidence occurs over time when farms and cities pump more water out of the ground than they put back in. Without the groundwater, the earth sinks, which lowers the valley's altitude compared to sea level. Subsidence is a valley-wide problem, and some spots are worse than others.

In some places, the earth has settled dozens of feet in the last several decades.

This becomes a problem for the canals because of the way they were designed. The Friant-Kern works the way it does because of gravity. Engineers built the canal at a slight downward slope for 150 miles, from the Friant Dam at Millerton Lake down to the Bakersfield area.

Subsidence creates large craters dozens of miles wide that interrupt the slope, causing water to pool instead of flow south. The Friant-Kern is especially important during wet years, like 2017, when Millerton Lake fills up and allows for an abundance of water to be sent to the south. But if the canal is limited in what it can carry, farmers in the south valley lose out on the much-needed water to irrigate crops and recharge their underground water basins for use in dry years.

The Friant-Kern Authority, which oversees maintenance of the canal, estimates that it will cost $300 million to make changes that will improve the flow.

Farmers can't come up with that much on their own, so local water officials are looking to the state of California or the federal government for help -- an investment, they say, in the nation's food supply.

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