Cracked pipes and burst water mains cost the residents of Yosemite Lakes Park in Madera County over 40 million gallons of water each year. With no help coming from the county or state, the private community is finding ways to make repairs on a budget.
The deteriorating water system has damaged the community’s roads, leaving them cracked, broken and in need of repaving. Broken pipes have caused other problems.
“We’ve had mud and water flows flood homes,” said Ken Harrington, general manager of the Yosemite Spring Park Utility Company, which is owned by Yosemite Lakes Park. “We’ve had vehicles drive into sinkholes, so besides doing damage to property it creates an unsafe environment.”
Since 1996, Harrington has had to repair 605 leaks in Yosemite Lakes Park’s water system. In making those repairs he has found substandard materials including low-pressure irrigation pipes meant for watering orchards, which were used in place of high-pressure pipes designed for residential use. Where residential pipes were used, they were often sun-damaged, which weakened their structural integrity.
Harrington estimates that in about 90% to 95% of the repairs he has made over the years, pipes were installed incorrectly, laid directly on granite rock without an insulating layer of sand to protect them from damage. In the 45 years since the community was first built, these factors combined to cost Yosemite Lakes Park roughly 22% of all the water it pumps annually from underground sources. After suffering through the problems for decades, last year the community decided it was finally time to act.
“Taking a look at the magnitude, we had to consider what our lowest-cost providers would probably charge us to fix the roads and the water,” said Bob Civello, general manager of the Yosemite Lakes Owners’ Association. “That came to $45 million.”
The association had hoped the county might lend assistance to the community’s 5,000 or so residents, who have paid $81 million in property taxes over the past 20 years, Civello said. But “Madera County is not considering those property taxes as part of our road and water replacement,” he said. “It’s been a political nightmare.”
We’ve had vehicles drive into sinkholes, so besides doing damage to property it creates an unsafe environment.
Ken Harrington, general manager of Yosemite Spring Park Utility Company
Civello and the association went looking for help to pay for the project. In September at a funding fair put on by the California Financing Coordinating Committee in Fresno, the community struck out. In October, at a planned meeting with Madera County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, whose District 5 includes Yosemite Lakes Park, Wheeler did not show up, though the meeting was attended by three members of his staff.
Wheeler said that he was sick at the time, and that he has met with the association since, even attending a town hall meeting on May 26. He explained why Madera County refused to help fund Yosemite Lakes Park’s repairs.
“It’s a private community and not part of the Madera County system,” said Wheeler. “They have their own water district and their own roads. We can’t use taxpayer dollars on fixing a private system.”
Mother of ingenuity
Out of desperation, the germ of an idea grew. If nobody would help Yosemite Lakes Park fix their infrastructure issues, they would do it themselves.
“I started out at two in the morning one night on Google after hitting every single dead-end known to man as far as financing and support,” said Civello. “I started Googling trenchers and pavers, and at about three in the morning I ended up on machinerytrader.com taking a look at used pieces of equipment. I came in the next morning and told Ken, and he said, ‘we can do this!’”
A 20-year master plan called Operation Self Sufficiency was hatched. Instead of using contractors to replace the pipes and repave the roads, the work would be overseen by Harrington and performed by the utility company. The plan was finalized, and equipment and materials were purchased. In the process the cost of the repairs plummeted from $45 million to $13 million.
Even after cutting the cost by $32 million, owners’ association dues went up by $152 a year to help pay for the project. This caused anger among some residents.
“The ones that are really upset are the ones who are on a fixed income, or they recently lost their jobs and they say that they can’t afford much of an increase,” said Nancy Davis, the association’s executive administrator. “There are some people that are unhappy and can’t wait to sell their property. They’re upset, and they want you to know it.”
$152Additional annual fees for Yosemite Lakes Park residents to pay for infrastructure work
Most residents, though, are happy to pay a little more if it means replacing their community’s collapsing infrastructure. At two town hall meetings in May, initially skeptical crowds numbering in the hundreds left happy with the plan that Harrington, Civello and the rest of the association board had come up with.
“I’m very much in favor of it (the plan). This is our place and we need to take care of it,” said resident Bonnie Friske, 69. “I don’t mind the dues increasing.”
With most residents on board, over the next several weeks the utility company staff will undergo training and receive certification in pipe fitting and equipment operation. On July 27, the project will finally break ground.
“We’re going to be trying to do about 100 feet of pipe replacement per day,” said Civello. “At about the 10th year of our 20-year process, we will have covered 25 miles, and that will replace about 80% of our main line breaks, because we’re going to prioritize which lines we replace first.”
After fixing 80% of the leaks, the efficiency of the water system will be such that the utility company can let go of nonessential personnel. That will free up $250,000, which the association will use to buy a paver. Repaving all of Yosemite Lakes’ roads will take another 10 years while the rest of the pipes are replaced.
“By addressing these pipes, we’re addressing water losses,” said Harrington. “We’re addressing efficiency, we’re trying to make things better and safer for people and trying to make this place that we love better for ourselves and our kids.”