When it comes to water security well into the 21st century, Fresno is home free.
The only possible glitch — Fresnans may prefer their money to home and water.
That was the clear message that came out of Monday’s water forum, City Hall’s fourth and final public gathering to review issues surrounding water.
About 150 people showed up at the City Council chamber to voice opinions, listen to experts and chew on what is likely to be the latest proposed reform of Fresno’s water system.
It was left to Martin McIntyre, a former Fresno public utilities director and current general manager of the San Luis Water District, to summarize Fresno’s unique good fortune.
In the midst of this maddening drought, McIntyre said, communities throughout the state would almost kill to have Fresno’s wealth of water resources.
But what Fresno lacks, McIntyre said, “is the infrastructure to put the water to use.”
Current Public Utilities Director Thomas Esqueda used the forum to hit all the high points of Fresno’s water situation and all the challenges ahead.
In a normal rain year, Fresno has legal right to about 180,000 acre-feet of water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. That’s 30,000 to 40,000 acre-feet more than Fresnans use in a year. An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons, more than enough to serve a typical family of four for 12 months.
But Fresno doesn’t have in place the surface water treatment plants plus the adequately developed system of pipes and recharge basins to make full use of this water. In fact, Fresno in a typical rain year watches half or more of its river water go to someone else.
The aquifer is Fresno’s savior. But for a variety of reasons — Sacramento regulators and groundwater poisons, to name two — the aquifer is no longer a surefire option for decades to come.
Many in the audience didn’t like such news. Some were angry that the problem wasn’t fixed 25 years ago. Some want all growth to stop. Some want Sacramento to pay for every penny of any solution.
Esqueda took it all in stride while unveiling a fix-it plan that could go to the City Council this month. It’s a five-year deal that would cost $400 million-plus. There would be a new surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno, new pipes to bring water from the rivers and more recharge basins.
Residential and commercial ratepayers would foot the bill for much of the construction bonds. Monthly rates for the typical single-family residence after five years would double ($24.49 now to about $52 in 2019). That’s still a bargain compared to coastal cities, Esqueda said.
Fresno with such a plan would have plenty of water in normal rain years and be sitting pretty when droughts come, Esqueda said. Fresno could guarantee the resurrection of its aquifer while keeping a bullying Sacramento at bay, Esqueda said.
Some audience members weren’t sure that scenario compared favorably to a few extra bucks in the wallet each month.
Context was key to understanding Monday’s forum. It was found on three levels.
The first was the fight in summer 2013 over hikes in residential and commercial water rates. Mayor Ashley Swearengin pitched her $410 million upgrade to the city’s water system with success. The City Council approved annual rate increases over four years that would have boosted the typical home’s monthly water bill from $24 to $48, give or take a few bucks and long showers.
The council repealed the rates this year rather than risk putting them to a vote of the people. Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, a critic of the hikes, got City Hall’s attention when he and his allies gathered enough voter signatures to put the issue on the general election ballot. The two sides nipped this in the bud by reaching a truce of sorts.
The second level was events of the past six weeks. The truce required City Hall to host community forums where all things water could be discussed. Details were left to the bureaucrats.
The result was a series of four town hall meetings built around the theme of Recharge Fresno. The name has a double meaning. The obvious one is replenishing Fresno’s groundwater table. The other, which came out as the meetings unfolded, is reinvigorating Fresno’s future with a safe, reliable source of water.
Each of the first three meetings — Sept. 29 (north Fresno), Oct. 13 (east-central Fresno), Oct. 27 (southwest Fresno) — drew 150 people or more. The meetings were heavy with numbers and science, the meat-and-potatoes of a semi-arid region’s water scene. But many Fresnans cut to the chase. They said they want a secure water future.
The third level of context is legitimacy. The council decision in 2013 to raise water rates actually attracted little consumer opposition outside the Vagim camp. But Vagim’s signature-gathering campaign effectively questioned whether City Hall went that extra mile in educating the public about a construction project of historic size. City officials vowed Recharge Fresno would eliminate this doubt. They said Fresnans, once well-informed, would vindicate the original project’s vision.