Water & Drought

August 15, 2014

Fresno prepares for forums on complex water issues

Fresno City Hall's new traveling water-rate show may be coming to a neighborhood near you.

City officials within a week expect to announce details for the round-table discussions mandated in their legal settlement with opponents of higher water rates.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim led a successful effort to force City Hall to repeal a series of annual water-rate hikes.

The City Council on July 31 voted to kill the increases, effective the next day. Mayor Ashley Swearengin wanted the extra money to fund a $410 million upgrade to the city's creaky water system.

Vagim and allies got enough voter signatures to put the hikes' fate on the Nov. 4 ballot. The two sides hammered out a truce that avoids a divisive election, but not the political headaches.

City officials remain determined to pursue higher rates to pay for system improvements. First, though, the settlement requires six months of public talk on water.

To be precise, a half-year of "bona fide, open, participatory roundtabl discussion.

No one knew what that meant on July 31, but the Swearengin administration since then has been circling an answer.

"The idea is to have a number of public forums, perhaps three to four," said Mark Standriff, city communications director. "We want to involve as many community members as possible who have a high interest in this issue. Each forum will be something that allows for a reasonable exchange of information and ideas."

The forums will have a moderator and be preceded by an open house. People can review graphics explaining the complex relationship of Fresno and water. One forum probably will be at City Hall. The others will be in different neighborhoods.

Vagim will be part of events, Standriff said, but the settlement doesn't give him veto power over their structure.

It remains to be seen if the administration's territorial imperative sits well with Vagim. He said no city official as of Thursday had asked him for ideas.

"I guess they're huddling," Vagim said. "I'll let the dust settle a bit before I start banging on doors."

That's not the voice of a passive man. He almost alone protested when the council debated the rate hikes last summer. His was the public face as rate opponents fought the administration in court.

"Hopefully, there will be a format of equal opportunity for both sides," Vagim said. "I'd like to see us pulling together on what this format will be. I don't want it to be an adversarial format. I want this to be about problem-solving. But that's up to the administration."

What's unfolding is something rare in the history of Fresno.

City Hall has always had competing interests fighting for decision-makers' ears. Direct democracy led to occasional efforts to recall a politician. Voters in 2013 overturned the city's decision to privatize residential trash service.

But when deciding how to publicly vet an issue, City Hall was in control. The Vagim settlement turned things upside down.

City officials and Vagim want the forums to be inclusive. That means two things.

First, the players are to come from many backgrounds. Administration officials, council members, officials from county, state and federal government, engineers, hydrologists, climatologists, farmers, business-owners, ratepayers, taxpayer advocates, social-service advocates -- the list of possible round-table participants and expert witnesses promises to be long.

Second, the number of topics could be even longer. Debates between city officials and Vagim in the past year covered dozens of water issues, usually all jumbled together.

Everyone agrees clarity of message is key to swaying the public. Surface-water treatment options will be at the heart of the fight for minds.

Fresno gets water from two main sources.

There's an aquifer that, while rich in high-quality water, suffers from a steadily declining groundwater level. Most of the pumped water is chlorinated and sent to customers.

And there's surface water. This water generally comes from Sierra Nevada run-off via the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. It must be treated -- cleaned -- for human consumption. Treatment plants aren't cheap. As Fresnans will see in the next half-year, the funding and location of these plants can generate political tension.

The big four of Fresno's potential surface water treatment assets are:

Northeast facility at Behymer and Chestnut avenues near Clovis North High School. The plant began operations in 2004 and usually treats about 20 million gallons a day. It has capacity to do 30 million gallons a day and room to double in size.

East-central facility at Dakota and Apricot avenues, east of Fresno Yosemite International Airport. It was finished about seven years ago. It can handle 4 million gallons a day and has room to double in size. However, other than a large storage tank, the facility isn't used much.

Wastewater treatment plant on Jensen Avenue, southeast of town. Don't laugh. The sewer farm gets on average about 60 million gallons of sewage per day. City officials see huge opportunities to reclaim most of that in ways that make Fresno more water secure.

Proposed facility on 58 acres at Olive and Armstrong avenues in the southeast. This $227 million project, the centerpiece of Swearengin's system upgrade, would handle up to 80 million gallons of water per day. There would be solar panels to help power the plant.

As the next six months will reveal, these four assets/ideas are the gateway to Fresno's complex world of water.

Take the small treatment plant at Dakota and Apricot. Vagim says it's a white elephant whose existence raises questions about the competence of city officials to manage bigger projects. City officials say it's a prudent insurance policy in case other parts of the system collapse at peak demand.

Vagim says expansion of the northeast plant should be the priority for a cost-conscious City Hall intent on recharging the aquifer. City officials say only a plant of southeast's size can truly make Fresno drought-resilient.

The proposed southeast plant has no other purpose than to burden ratepayers with bills that should be borne by developers, Vagim contends. City officials say the southeast plant is pivotal to a sound water system that spurs revitalization of Fresno's oldest neighborhoods.

The upcoming forums, Standriff promised, "will have a significant amount of information."

Added Vagim: "This is a very opportune time to have a broader discussion."

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