Fresno and Orange Cove district may strike a water deal

The Fresno BeeMay 12, 2014 

The Friant-Kern Canal below Friant Dam on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 near Friant.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Fresno City Hall wants to help a neighbor survive the drought.

The City Council on Thursday will consider a deal that would move millions of gallons of Fresno-earmarked river water to the Orange Cove Irrigation District struggling to keep crops alive and people on the job.

"It's in everybody's best interest to do all we can to save the jobs so critical to the county," said Fresno Public Utilities Assistant Director Martin Querin.

Orange Cove district board president Harvey Bailey said he hopes the council approves the deal.

"Orange Cove is in dire need," Bailey said. "All up and down the Valley, it's going to take teamwork to get through this."

Querin said the deal has several aspects:

• The federal Bureau of Reclamation and San Joaquin River restoration officials, among others, decided to halt the delivery of nearly 12,700 acre-feet of water to the river because of the drought. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or a 12-to-18-month supply for an average Valley family. The water that was supposed to go to restoration -- called "unreleased restoration flows" -- instead is available for water agencies.

• Fresno is entitled to a portion -- about 710 acre-feet -- of that water.

• Fresno is hardly water-rich, but has nurtured its resources to such a degree that it can get through this year without the water.

• The Orange Cove district, which serves about 28,000 acres in Fresno and Tulare counties, may get no water this year from the Friant-Kern canal, a part of the Central Valley Project.

• With the help of the Fresno Irrigation District, Fresno would transfer the approximately 710 acre-feet to the Orange Cove district. The city will recover its costs, but make no profit on the deal.

Bailey said it's too early to predict how much district farmers will pay for the water by the time it reaches their farms, but it could be more than $1,000 per acre-foot. At that price, it would be about four times what water would cost in a non-drought year. But in times like these, there's no telling what the top price will be as the summer approaches.

The approximately 710 acre-feet "are just a drop in the bucket," Bailey said. "But every little bit helps."

Querin said the proposed deal should not be viewed as a sign that Fresno has suddenly become water-rich. His context is the bitter water-rate fight between City Hall and former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim and his allies.

The City Council has approved a series of annual hikes to residential and commercial rates to pay for a $410 million upgrade to Fresno's water system. City officials say Fresno's rates remain reasonable for a semi-arid region. More importantly, they add, the money will fund projects (among them a new surface water treatment plant) that will enable the city to accelerate the recharging of perhaps its most valuable asset -- the aquifer.

Vagim wants voters to decide the fate of the new rates. He is leading a signature-gathering campaign -- Measure W -- to put the question on the ballot. He says the $410 million project is unnecessarily ambitious. He says the public never got a fair shot at weighing in on the project.

City Hall is fighting him in the courts. City officials say the council already went through a public hearing on the rates. They say a city's commitment to providing a vital public necessity is not legally subject to a referendum.

City officials are acutely aware that the transfer of more than 700 acre feet of water to another Valley area, however needy that area and however united Valley residents typically are in a crisis, may send mixed signals to a public trying to make sense of a complex issue.

Querin said Fresno in recent years has wisely focused on conservation, infrastructure improvements and the recharging of its aquifer. He said the continuing upgrade to the system is key to a secure water future.

"We're in a crisis," Querin said. "We have enough resources to limp through this. We're trying to fix our infrastructure so, in the future, we'll always be able to get through a drought."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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