Swearengin hails start of work on new Fresno water treatment plant

With a flurry of speeches and a flourish of felt-tip markers, Fresno leaders marked the ceremonial start of construction Wednesday for a new $159 million water treatment plant with the promise of relieving the city’s reliance on groundwater pumping.

The plant, east of Fowler Avenue and north of Olive Avenue, will have the capacity to initially treat 54 million gallons of water daily from Millerton Lake and Pine Flat Reservoir when it is operational in late 2018. Within a couple of years, its capacity will be increased to 80 million gallons per day – or about 80,000 acre-feet of water a year. In tandem with a smaller treatment plant in northeast Fresno, the city will be able to treat 110,000 acre-feet of water annually.

“What this allows us to do is replace the groundwater supply with surface water so we can let those pumps rest, so it’s a great program for recharging the aquifer,” said Thomas Esqueda, the city’s public utilities director.

Fresno water users typically consume 120,000 to 130,000 acre-feet a year. And the city typically has rights to about 180,000 acre-feet of river water – in years when river water is abundant. But it cannot use all of that water now, largely because it lacks the capacity to treat it before sending it out into the city’s pipeline system.

The new plant is a cornerstone of Recharge Fresno, a $430 million program to make the most of Fresno’s allocations of surface water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. In addition to the plant, it includes pipelines to bring water from the Friant-Kern Canal and the Kings River into the plant, as well as pipelines to carry the treated water to customers across the city. It also calls for using excess surface water to help recharge the underground water table.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin hailed Wednesday’s ceremony as the start of the city’s effort “to start using our surface water supplies that we’ve been paying for but we’ve not been able to capture and to use.” Instead of a traditional groundbreaking with gold-painted shovels, she and Fresno City Council members were joined by other leaders in signing a length of 60-inch water pipe.

Swearengin recalled a tortuous five-year process fraught with political and legal wrangling that culminated last year in the City Council’s approval of water rate increases to pay for upgrades to the city’s water system. “The City Council members will tell you that raising everyone’s water bills was the next to last thing that any of them wanted to do,” Swearengin said. But, she added, “the last thing they wanted to do is to fail to take action on an issue as important as securing our city’s water future.”

“Fresno is on its way to becoming one of the few drought-resilient cities in the western United States,” the mayor proclaimed.

Preparing for the future

Currently, most of the water used by the city is pumped from underground and is treated for such contaminants as nitrates, DBCP, MTBE and others. DBCP is a soil fumigant that was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1979; MTBE is an additive used in gasoline.

Surface water carries far less risk of such chemical contaminants, Esqueda said.

“The thing we’re most worried about with this water supply is disinfection,” he said. “There are creatures and animals upstream that use the river for something else, so we have to make sure we disinfect it for bacteria and viruses.”

Esqueda said treatment will primarily involve a process of sedimentation – letting dirt and other solids settle out of the water in ponds – followed by filtration and disinfection with chlorine or other chemicals before pumping the water into the city’s distribution system.

Until it’s operational, however, Esqueda is keeping his fingers crossed that the water table holds out.

“Pray for more rain, lots and lots and lots of rain, and hope for some flood releases so we can get some of that water in here to recharge some of these basins,” he said.

The plant’s full effectiveness won’t be realized, however, if water allocations fall short in drought years as they have in recent years. Fresno’s total surface-water allocation in 2014, for example, was 65,485 acre-feet, and it was even less – about 42,582 acre-feet – last year. That reality is not lost on Swearengin.

“If you look at the last 60 years, we do have access to surface water. The problem is, we’ve not taken advantage of it and instead used our groundwater,” she said. “That means when we do have years of drought, and we don’t have access to surface water, we have nothing to turn to. We have no backup plan.

“In the middle of one of the worst droughts in the history of the state, it is very appropriate that we would be taking such drastic steps to prepare for the next drought,” Swearengin added. “We know it doesn’t help us in this drought, but today’s drought is a reminder of why we must prepare for the next drought.”