Residents in westside town get extra money to offset water bills

The water challenge for Cantua Creek, El Porvenir

A community advocate for the westside towns talks about their need for affordable drinking water.
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A community advocate for the westside towns talks about their need for affordable drinking water.

Residents of El Porvenir, threatened with water shutoff in August as their neighbors in Cantua Creek were last year, are getting financial relief from the state.

The funding will allow the community’s residents to buffer their higher water bills to the county, which, in turn, can pay Westlands Water District for water to the town.

In April, the farmworker residents of the tiny western Fresno County town rejected a higher water rate over five years that amounted to about $5 a month the first year. That would have moved the monthly rate from $110 to $115. The rate was proposed as $112 for four years afterward.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors will ask residents to vote in early August to accept the state money. If the residents don’t support the funding, their water could be shut off by mid-August, county officials say.

Financial relief from the state, about $28,000 total, will offset water costs from Westlands by about $22 a month per household. Residents must promise to conserve by using 50 gallons per person per day so the county can keep the monthly bill at $110 a month. Residents will be charged more if they use more.

$115The monthly amount El Porvenir residents opposed to pay for water.

Already, residents in the 56-home El Porvenir and 75-home Cantua Creek districts get bottled drinking water because what comes out their taps exceeds state guidelines for disinfectant agents. The water is drinkable, but if consumed for 70 years, the risk for bad health impacts goes up.

Last year, Cantua Creek residents rejected a $35 rate increase and also were threatened with a shutoff until the state issued emergency grants to pay the difference between the old and new rates. Cantua residents had to keep consumption at 50 gallons per day or less. Their water rates are about $75 a month.

The county has had meetings with residents and the plan has their support, said John Thompson, the county’s deputy public works and planning director.

Funding for Cantua Creek will last through June 2018. El Porvenir’s money will continue through April 2018.

By then, he said, it’s possible construction on a water project could be under way.

In the meantime, county and state officials are working on a long-term fix. One plan was to develop a water treatment plant that would serve both Cantua Creek and El Porvenir, which is three miles to the west. The idea would have created a district of about 130 customers and potentially dilute and reduce the disinfectants used to cleanse the raw water coming from Westlands.

New water plan

Thompson said the state is undertaking a new plan that would result in deep wells being drilled in each community.

By using groundwater, he said, the county wouldn’t have to buy raw water from Westlands, which has experienced wild fluctuations in prices it pays and must charge for water.

Residents are most concerned about price, and building a surface water treatment plant with miles of piping didn’t appear to significantly lower the costs for residents because of operations and maintenance costs, said Betsy Lichti, Fresno District engineer for the state Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water.

It also won’t resolve fluctuations in water costs from Westlands.

Instead, state officials examined agricultural wells in the two communities drilled from 1,160 feet to 2,040 feet underground and found there is “good water quality at those depths,” she said.

We all recognize the need to move on it fast because the residents are frustrated.

Betsy Lichti, state Water Resources Control Board engineer

Treatment costs also appear to be significantly lower, Lichti said.

Focusing on a treatment plant was going to exceed $10 million while two wells will cost significantly less, she said.

“We thought, ‘Why are we forcing this one path with high levels of treatment when it looks like we can drill wells in each community and make them individually sustainable?’ ” Lichti said.

They could go back to the treatment plant option if the wells are not viable.

Establishing the wells requires a new planning study for each community, Lichti said, and that study could take 18 months before work can get under way.

“We all recognize the need to move on it fast because the residents are frustrated,” she said. “We hope we can wrap it up sooner.”

Advocates still concerned

Fresno-based community advocate Janaki Jagannath said that wells also could have naturally occurring contaminants, but that “well drilling is considerably less expensive.”

She said that consolidating the two water systems may not significantly lower costs for residents, but flipping a switch and moving to a different solution could be more time-consuming.

Nevertheless, Jagannath, community coordinator with Agroecology, agreed with county and state officials that using groundwater would avoid the “price volatility” that Westlands must pass on to users.

Still, she said, the proposed length of the study is annoying to residents eager for a solution.

There are still a lot of unknowns and the residents have been waiting five years for this project.

Janaki Jagannath, Fresno-based community advocate

“There are more positives than negatives, but there are still a lot of unknowns and the residents have been waiting five years for this project,” she said.

The $28,000 of state money plus additional state drought emergency funding available to farmworkers who lose jobs or have no access to quality drinking water is helping to further ease the bills of residents while ensuring their water will stay on.

The bills in Cantua Creek are around $70 a month and about $85 to $90 monthly in El Porvenir under the proposal, she said.

While the prices are better than the alternatives, “that’s still exorbitant,” Jagannath said.

“We are cobbling together (funding) where we can,” she said. “Affordability of water was the primary concern of residents from the very beginning.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin