Bureau of Reclamation Banner
Friant Division Project
Needs a description
Project Links
Project History
Project Data
Contact Information
Parent Program/Project
Central Valley Project
Related Facilities
Related Documents
Friant Division Project History (66 KB) (pdf)
General Description | Plan | Development | Benefits

General Description

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 Reclamation.

Return to top



Facility Descriptions


Friant Dam and Millerton Lake

Friant Dam is located on the San Joaquin River, 25 miles northeast of Fresno, California. Completed in 1942, the dam is a concrete gravity structure, 319 feet high, with a crest length of 3,488 feet. The dam controls the San Joaquin River flows, provides downstream releases to meet requirements above Mendota Pool, and provides flood control, conservation storage, diversion into Madera and Friant-Kern Canals, prevents salt water from destroying thousands of acres in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and delivers water to a million acres of agricultural land in Fresno, Kern, Madera, and Tulare Counties in the San Joaquin Valley. The reservoir, Millerton Lake, first stored water on February 21, 1944. It has a total capacity of 520,528 acre-feet, a surface area of 4,900 acres, and is approximately 15 miles long. The lake`s 45 miles of shoreline varies from gentle slopes near the dam to steep canyon walls farther inland. The reservoir provides boating, fishing, picnicking, and swimming.

In 1947, a group of riparian landowners sued the Federal Government under terms of the California Fish and Game Code, claiming Friant Dam deprived them of commercial and recreational uses related to salmon spawning and fishing. The State Attorney General concluded the United States was not required by State law to allow enough water to pass the dam to preserve fisheries below the dam site.

The issue of fish flows found new life in 1988, when first contracts for the Friant Division came up for renewal. Fifteen environmental groups sued the Federal Government that year, arguing contract renewals should be subject to environmental review under provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A U.S. District Court in late 1992 decided not to dismiss the case. Environmentalists now believe that, in the future, the dam will have to provide flows for fish. Passage of the CVP Improvement Act of 1992, reallocating up to 800,000 acre-feet of CVP yield for the restoration of valley fisheries, will undoubtedly impact the Friant Division.

Reclamation designed Friant`s spillway to pass flood water into Millerton Lake. Flow over the spillway is controlled by three 100-foot-wide by 18-foot-high drum gates operated by buoyancy. The capacity of the spillway is 83,020 cfs at elevation 578.0. The gates rise by flotation when water enters each gate chamber. The watertight gates are in the recess of the spillway, forming a portion of the crest when lowered. Engineers designed the foundation drainage holes at a 5-inch diameter to reduce the number of clearing and redrilling intervals required by water-deposited sediments. Due to frequent drought cycles in central California over the past fifty years, water seldom spilled at Friant.

Parts of the crest and other supplementary fixtures that were described as `excellent-looking` in the late 1960s, have developed long, wide cracks. Concrete expansion is visible along the top 6 feet of the crest, the chute surface, and the reinforced concrete portions of the structural framing around the outlets. In 1984, Reclamation predicted that deterioration and seepage will eventually jeopardized the safe operation of the dam. An engineers safety report recommended that, after 44 years of service, a modification study be conducted to prevent the concrete`s continuing decay.

On the Friant Division, there are three separate river and canal outlets: the river outlet works, the Friant-Kern Canal, and the Madera Canal. The river outlet works are four 110-inch-diameter steel pipes through Friant Dam that are controlled by four 96-inch-diameter hollow-jet valves at the outlet ends. The valves release water down a chute and into a stilling basin, which dissipates the water's energy. The capacity of the four hollow-jet valves is 16,400 cfs; however, the flow through the valves seldom exceeds 100 cfs. Small releases to the river flow through two 24-inch-diameter steel pipes branching from Penstocks 3 and 4. Releases are controlled by two 18-inch-diameter needle valves at the outlet ends.

The Friant-Kern Canal outlet works are located on the left side of the spillway. They consist of a stilling basin and four 110-inch steel pipes through the dam. These pipes are controlled by four 96-inch-diameter hollow jet valves at the outlet ends. The hollow-jet valves release water down a chute and into a stilling basin, which dissipates the water's energy.

More than 350 overhead and underground telephone lines, telegraph lines, power lines, and oil and gas lines were moved to higher elevations or relocated during construction of the Friant-Kern Canal. Heavy crawler tractors and bulldozers that were equipped with attachments to cut roots below the surface burrowed through vineyards and orchards. Along a 113-mile reach between the dam and the White River, more than 500 different structures, including overchutes, drainage inlets, irrigation crossings, and turnouts were built. During construction, placement of concrete lining was aided by the use of a traveling gantry. Almost 85 percent of the canal is 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


The Friant-Kern Canal carries water over 151.8 miles in a southerly direction from Millerton Lake to the Kern River, four miles west of Bakersfield. The water is used for supplemental and new irrigation supplies in Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties. 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.

Madera Canal


The 35.9-mile-long Madera Canal carries water northerly from Millerton Lake to furnish lands in Madera County with a supplemental and a new irrigation supply. The canal, completed in 1945, has an initial capacity of 1,000 cfs, decreasing to a capacity of 625 cubic feet per second at the Chowchilla River. In 1965, the canal lining from the headworks to milepost 2.09 was raised so that 1,250 cfs could be delivered.

The outlet works features two 91-inch-diameter steel pipes controlling releases through two 86-inch-diameter interior differential needle valves at the outlet ends. The needle valves discharge into a stilling basin that is the starting point of the Madera Canal. The canal bottom width varies from 8 to 10 feet in the concrete-lined sections and from 20 to 24 feet in the earth-lined sections. The water depth varies from 7 to 9 feet in all sections. Approximately 79 percent of the canal is earth-lined. Water ran for the first time through the entire length of Madera Canal on June 10, 1945, and deliveries were made a month later.

John A. Franchi Diversion Dam


The Madera Diversion Dam (renamed the John A. Franchi Diversion Dam), on the Fresno River, is operated by the Madera Irrigation District. Built by Reclamation and completed in 1964, the earth and sheet steel piling dam supports the Madera Canal. Franchi stands 15-feet-high and spans 263 feet across the Fresno River.


Operating Agencies



Return to top




Historic Setting


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.


Settlement of the Project


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.

Return to top




Uses of Project Water


In 1990, on 837,079 acres irrigated by the Friant Division, growers gathered $1.9 billion in revenue from more than 90 varieties of crops. Fruits alone provided a $1.3 billion contribution to that total.


Flood Control


Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River played a key role during central California`s unprecedented 1997 floods. Friant Dam has Flood Control Storage space in the reservoir during the fall and winter months. The amount of flood control storage space is dictated from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Reservoir Regulation Manual.


Return to top</p

Last updated: Jan 14, 2015