Fresno to consider powerful law for recycled wastewater

The Fresno BeeJuly 16, 2014 

Fresno is taking another step toward making liquid gold out of its sewage.

But one council member worries about potential costs to business and homeowners.

The City Council on Thursday will consider adopting an ordinance giving City Hall authority to use highly-treated wastewater for tasks such as landscape irrigation.

It's all part of the city mantra for water: Make every molecule count.

"This is very important for our community," said Steve Hogg, head of the city's wastewater treatment plant west of town. "We want to make sure we have a diversified and reliable water-resource portfolio."

Fresno generates about 70,000 acre-feet of wastewater a year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve a family of four for a year. City Hall's goal is to reuse at least 25,000 acre-feet annually by 2025.

The spur is obvious in years of normal rainfall, but becomes desperate during droughts such as the current one.

Much of the treatment plant's wastewater is treated, then allowed to seep into the ground outside town to recharge underground basins. Inside the city, most public and private landscaping is currently irrigated with drinking water.

The solution, one already embraced by many California cities, is simple: Ramp up the sewer water's treatment (tertiary with disinfection), build a delivery system of pipes, and persuade consumers of the treated water's value.

Hogg and his staff have been planning all this for several years. They're now acting. The council recently approved construction of phase one of a tertiary treatment and disinfection plant. Hogg said the plant and phase one of the delivery system (slated to serve parts of southwest Fresno and downtown) will be built at the same time.

By mid-to-late 2016, Hogg said, the new plant and pipes should be delivering the recycled water. Phase one should be able to handle about 5 million gallons a day, he said. The system when fully built would handle about 30 million gallons of recycled water a day.

Hogg said the first customers could be Roeding Park, the cemeteries on Belmont Avenue west of Highway 99 and median islands. He said the highly treated water isn't for drinking but is safe for human contact.

But this system of buildings and pipes also needs a legal structure. That's where the council's action on Thursday comes in.

The ordinance establishes administrative authority, approved uses and areas of potential service, among other things. The ordinance also reserves the city's right to use compulsion. For example, the city could require all customers who connect to Fresno's potable water system after Jan. 1, 2015 to use recycled water instead of potable (drinkable) water for approved uses.

Customers could be required to build the connecting pipes at their expense.

This creates opportunities for policy conflict as well as potable water savings. Fresno is full of industries, businesses, apartment complexes, houses, schools, government sites and open spaces ripe for the use of wastewater treated to such an extent that it can be safely used on grass where residents have family picnics.

Giving City Hall the power to make such use mandatory in some or all cases is a new chapter in Fresno politics.

Council Member Sal Quintero said he may ask the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin to delay the ordinance until a workshop is held.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," Quintero said. "This is going to have a big impact on our businesses and housing developments. What are the costs to them?"

Thursday's recycled-water hearing is merely one of many water-related challenges facing City Hall.

The council also is slated to debate what to do with the higher residential and commercial water rates approved last year. Swearengin has in mind an ambitious $410 million upgrade of the water system, including a $227 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno. The recycled-water system is not part of this project.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim and allies gathered enough voter signatures to put the rate hikes to a public vote. The council's options include repeal of the rates or letting the issue go on the ballot as Measure W.

City officials also will discuss conservation on a broader scale. The State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday declared certain types of water waste a criminal infraction.

Fresno water users have reduced consumption by 30% since 2008, City Manager Bruce Rudd said. There has been a 10% reduction from January to May this year compared to the same period in 2013, he added.

Regardless of what Sacramento does, Rudd said, Fresno may have to consider "implementing additional measures that are needed to mitigate the impacts of extended periods of heat and drought conditions."

The content of those measures, and the effect conservation is having on water department revenues, almost certainly will be topics of interest to the council Thursday.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or or @GeorgeHostetter on Twitter.

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