City Hall will let Fresnans water their yards one day a week this winter.
The rules are simple:
• They apply from Dec. 1 to March 1 for outdoor watering.
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• Homes and businesses with addresses ending in an odd number — 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 — may water only on Saturday.
• Those with addresses ending in an even number — 0, 2, 4, 6, 8 — may water only on Sunday.
• No watering is permitted between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on the appropriate watering day.
• City officials will keep their eyes peeled for rule-breakers.
That’s it. There’s a backstory, of course. To dip into it is to grasp the complexity of a drought and its politics.
This definitely is a doozy of a dry spell. Local water officials say the past year has been the driest in the San Joaquin Valley’s recorded history. The same is true for the past three-year period.
City Hall officials in July gathered at a groundwater pumping station in southeast Fresno to announce new outdoor watering rules. They worried about a depleted aquifer. Just as importantly, they wanted to keep on the good side of a state government just itching to expand its water-regulating domain.
At the time, City Hall allowed outdoor watering three days a week from March 2 to Oct. 31. Watering from Dec. 1 to March 1 was allowed one day a week.
City Manager Bruce Rudd said the new rules were two days of watering in the warmer months and no watering — zip, zilch, zero — during the three coldest months.
Word of the change went out far and wide through local media and City Hall communication channels. Fresnans for the most part adjusted, especially when they realized a first infraction wouldn’t lead to a small fortune of a fine.
Water conservation was the aim, of course. Fresnans were already doing a pretty good job in this area. Average daily consumption had dropped in the last six years from well over 300 gallons per person to the 240 range. Civic virtue helped, but not as much as the citywide installation of residential water meters.
Barely a week after Rudd’s news conference, the City Council stunned everyone by repealing a four-year series of water-rate hikes that had been on the books since late 2013.
This tale is familiar to many.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin last year proposed a $410 million upgrade to the city’s water system. The centerpiece was to be construction of a big surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno.
Swearengin’s plan was meant to address the weird mess Fresno had gotten itself into over water.
Fresno sits atop an aquifer that, even after 80 years of abuse, remains the envy of much of the western U.S. But that’s not all. Fresno also has rights in a typical rain year to 180,000 acre feet of water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. Fresno uses only about 130,000 to 140,000 acre feet a year.
What’s the problem, right?
Well, Fresno, for reasons that escape the historical record, never figured out how to make full use this liquid fortune. River water must be treated before it’s piped to homes. That requires treatment plants and pipes. Fresno lacks sufficient plants and pipes to use anywhere close to 180,000 acre feet a year.
So, most of that water in a normal year goes elsewhere in the region. Fresno, having shot itself in the water-supply foot, tries to make up for it by sucking up groundwater. Sacramento regulators are now telling Fresno to knock it off with the big straw.
In Swearengin’s view, Fresno’s wisest course was to build another treatment plant for that river water. Do that, she said, and Fresno in a typical rain year becomes Water City.
But $410 million is a lot of money. Most of it was to come from residential and rate payers. Two weeks before Rudd’s news conference in July, former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim and his allies turned in enough voter signatures to put the higher water rates to a vote of the people.
The council’s repeal of the rate hikes less than a month later was part of a truce with Vagim that avoided the election.
Events since then have only accelerated. Sacramento politicians passed a law that effectively puts an end to Fresno’s intemperate use of the aquifer. The Vagim settlement led to a series of water forums designed to engage Fresnans in water policy. Swearengin returned to the council with a $429 million (inflation, you know) plan to fix the water system.
The council on Nov. 20 voted unanimously to begin a long public process that most likely will lead in February to a decision on whether to again raise rates. City officials very much want every corner of Fresno to get solidly behind then new plan.
Through all this, city officials faced a big problem they were hesitant to publicize.
It would be only human for Fresnans to view all the sacrifice demanded of them — perpetual conservation, ever-rising rates, loss of independence to Sacramento — and ask of City Hall: What’s in it for me, especially since my sacrifice secures more water than the city can possibly use in a typical rain year?
How would City Hall answer, especially since many parts of California even in normal rain years aren’t blessed like Fresno?
The council, also on Nov. 20, gave the first hint of a consumer payoff. City officials noted that Fresnans from Nov. 1 to March 1 use only a tiny fraction of water compared to the other nine months. Giving trees, shrubs and lawns an occasional drink between winter storms is good for the green space and good for civic morale, council members said.
So, 10 days before the bite of the much-trumpeted zero-outdoor winter watering rule would be felt, the council went full circle and reinstated the old rule: One day of outdoor watering per week.
Happy Holidays, Fresno.