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Fresno City Council agrees to join regional groundwater agency

Brad Hoagland, a plant operator at Fresno’s Northeast Surface Water Treatment Plant, explains how an ozone generator disinfects surface water from the Enterprise Canal so it can be distributed through the city’s drinking water system. This plant and another under construction in southeast Fresno are keys to the city’s plan to reduce its reliance on pumped groundwater.
Brad Hoagland, a plant operator at Fresno’s Northeast Surface Water Treatment Plant, explains how an ozone generator disinfects surface water from the Enterprise Canal so it can be distributed through the city’s drinking water system. This plant and another under construction in southeast Fresno are keys to the city’s plan to reduce its reliance on pumped groundwater. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

Fresno leaders on Thursday approved signing on with a new regional authority that will develop rules to reduce strain on the underground water table for much of Fresno County.

The 5-0 vote by the Fresno City Council makes the city the last of about a dozen cities and local agencies to formally approve participating in the North Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency. The new agency includes the cities of Clovis and Kerman, the Fresno Irrigation District, the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District, the county of Fresno, Fresno State, and several smaller water or community service districts. The area roughly coincides with the boundaries of the Fresno Irrigation District.

The state has deemed the San Joaquin Valley basin one of the 21 most overpumped aquifers in the state, where more water is pumped each year than can be replenished through rainfall and other groundwater recharge efforts. The regional agency is one of several being formed across the central San Joaquin Valley to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which became state law in 2014.

The North Kings group will be tasked with coming up with a groundwater sustainability plan within 20 years, according to a staff report to the City Council from Thomas Esqueda, Fresno’s public utilities director. That plan, he added, will be required to identify projects and plans to relieve the overdraft of the water table.

Within that context, he added, Fresno will retain control of its own water assets, including its inventory of wells and its allocations of surface water from Millerton and Pine Flat lakes. Regardless of any regulations and requirements that the joint agency develops, “we maintain control and enforcement in our own jurisdictions,” Esqueda said.

Councilman Steve Brandau voted to approve the membership but said he earlier had concerns that Fresno might bear an outsized share of costs for any water-mitigation regulations that could be generated. “It’s often the community with the deepest pockets that ends up mitigating the problem for everybody,” he said.

But after meeting with Esqueda to go over details of the agency agreement, Brandau expressed satisfaction that “Fresno ratepayers are not going to have to foot the bill” for other communities.

Brandau added that Fresno’s existing Northeast Surface Water Treatment Plant and another plant under construction in southeast Fresno to treat water from Millerton and Pine Flat lakes will help Fresno reduce its reliance on pumped groundwater, contributing to goals that might be established by the regional agency. He expressed a hope that “if the state demands, and we use the treatment plant to mitigate, other agencies may help us foot the bill” for the southeast plant, which is expected to cost $159 million by the time it opens in late 2018.

In other action Thursday:

▪ Rail maintenance site: The council authorized the city to begin negotiations with about a half-dozen property owners at the southern edge of Fresno to secure purchase options for about 170 acres of land proposed as the site for a heavy maintenance facility for California’s high-speed rail project. The authorization allows up to $250,000 for one-year options on the properties – enough time, officials hope, for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to decide from among several competing sites in the Valley.

The maintenance facility is being highly sought because of the prospect of 1,000 or more permanent jobs servicing the trains for the statewide rail project and potentially becoming a magnet for rail-related industries, said Larry Westerlund, the city’s economic development director. Councilmen Clint Olivier and Brandau, who are both vocal critics of the high-speed rail project, voted against the plan.

▪ Parking lot sale: On a 7-0 vote, the council agreed to sell a 4.5-acre parking lot in downtown Fresno to the California High-Speed Rail Authority for about $1.4 million. The parking lot is north of Fresno Street between H Street and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, just north of where the rail authority plans to build an $80 million passenger station for its high-speed train system on a block bounded by G, H, Fresno and Tulare streets.

▪ Federal infrastructure grant: Council members voted 6-0 to accept a grant of more than $3 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The city will contribute an additional $1.4 million to make road and infrastructure improvements in Fresno’s South Van Ness Industrial Area south of downtown.

“This is one of the industrial areas that is most depressed in terms of infrastructure,” Westerlund said. “Some of it is maybe 100 years old.”

The poor condition of roads is a problem for major companies in the neighborhood, including Lyons Magnus, OK Produce and Jain Irrigation. Improving the roads, he said, will enable those businesses to not only stay in the area, but expand their collective jobs base by more than 300 over the next few years.

▪ Downtown sewer improvements: On a 7-0 vote, the council awarded a $1.5 million construction contract to Bill Nelson GEC Inc., a Fresno contractor, to replace and rehabilitate several stretches of sewer lines in the north-central area of downtown Fresno. Kevin Norgaard, an engineer with the city’s wastewater division, said the clay sewer pipes are between 104 and 127 years old. An inspection revealed that sections of the pipes are cracked, sagging or undersized.

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