I watered a piece of my front lawn last Thursday with city of Fresno water.
I live near Bullard High School. Someone passing my house might have assumed I was breaking just about every landscape-irrigation rule known to the city’s water police. For starters, Thursday is a non-watering day for everyone.
In fact, I had City Hall’s blessing.
I was using recycled water from the sewer farm west of town. And City Hall didn’t charge me a cent.
Pretty soon a lot of Fresnans may be following my example — again, with City Hall’s OK.
My tale is how I came to get the free water, and how my fellow Fresnans can do the same. First, some background.
Strictly speaking, I wasn’t using recycled water. Recycled water in the eyes of regulators is the stuff from a sewer farm that gets several levels of treatment plus a dose of disinfection.
I was using extracted water. That’s the stuff that has been treated, allowed to percolate into the aquifer, then pumped to the surface.
To me, it’s all sewage recycled into something useful. For simplicity, “recycled” is the term I’ll use.
This started when I met with Thomas Esqueda (Fresno’s public utilities director) and Mark Standriff (the city’s communications director) to discuss a story on green waste.
My thinking: We’re in a terrible drought; the city must meet tough recycling mandates. Residential landscape irrigation restrictions will only get more severe as the long, hot summer drags on. Green-waste collections figure to plummet as people stop watering their greenery; the result could be big trouble with Sacramento’s recycling gurus who don’t want too high a percentage of a city’s garbage going to landfills.
I asked Esqueda at the end of the chat: “Say, Tommy, how is that recycled-water thing at the sewer farm coming along?”
City officials had talked for months about finding a quick way to get recycled water from sewer farm to voluntary customers, thus taking pressure off the city’s potable (drinkable) water system. The immediate challenge: An extensive “purple pipe” system is several years away.
“Might be ready by June,” Esqueda said of the quick fix.
“What’ll you charge the homeowners?”
“Free,” Esqueda said.
One thing led to another, and the next day I was standing with Steve Hogg, the sewer farm’s boss, at his headquarters west of town. I was there to get a load of free water. It was in the interest of science — what will Fresnans with the same idea go through this summer?
Over the years Martin McIntyre, Patrick Wiemiller and Esqueda as Fresno public utilities directors spent many an hour telling me about the importance of water infrastructure to Fresno’s fate. I didn’t appreciate their wisdom until I tried to get a load of water from the sewer farm to my front yard.
First up, I had to find a way to haul the water.
Water is heavy. As the saying goes, a pint’s a pound the world around. That means one gallon is eight pounds, give or take a bit. I have a 1985 Toyota pickup with lots of miles. I wanted to haul enough water to make the trip worth the effort. But I didn’t want to crush my pickup.
I figured I could safely haul 50 gallons — a 400-pound load, not counting the containers. But I didn’t have much in the way of containers at home.
I went to the Walmart near Pinedale on Tuesday night and bought four five-gallon plastic bottles at $6.94 (plus tax) each. I would have bought a few more, but that’s all I found on the shelf. The bottles had screw-on caps.
I went home and looked for more containers.
My 19-month-old grandson has a plastic box on our patio for his outdoor toys. The box has a lid. I tossed the toys in a corner. I now had a 17-gallon container that could be sealed.
Next I grabbed my 12-gallon plastic shower bucket. I stand in the bucket while taking my morning shower, then use the “gray” water on the backyard bushes. Works like a charm. The shower bucket’s only downside was lack of a lid. But I was running out of options. I would use the shower bucket.
I found a few one-gallon plastic milk jugs (with cap) in our recyclable bin. They put me over my 50-gallon goal. For good measure, I decided to take a battered 64-gallon trash can.
The prospect of free water in the middle of a drought had made me greedy.
I headed to the sewer farm with all this stuff. I had added a 20-pound dumbbell to the trash can to give it ballast on the trip home.
I met Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora and Hogg at sewer farm headquarters. Hogg told us, “Follow me.”
The fill station was about a mile west of Hogg’s office. Our path was rough and dusty. We stopped at a pipe with a coiled hose.
There it was — water revolution in the making. I’m guessing that pipe and hose will forever change Fresno’s attitude toward its recycled liquid gold.
A turn of the handle and I suddenly had a stream of water delivering about 10 gallons of cool, clear water per minute.
It was all mine, as much as I wanted, for free.
Things moved swiftly. My grandson’s toy box was first to fill. I hadn’t put much water in the trash can when I saw a small leak. Nix the trash can. The shower bucket and the five-gallon-plastic bottles were topped off quickly. I filled the smaller plastic bottles from the shower bucket while the five-gallon bottles were filling, then refilled the shower bucket.
Hogg turned the shut-off valve just as the water in the last five-gallon bottle reached the top. Except for the leak in the trash can, I didn’t waste a drop.
(I returned better prepared a few days later. It took me just 15 minutes to enter the site, load 110 gallons and leave. This service will work.)
I’m a native Valley boy, born (1950) and raised in Lindsay (a town suffering from water-insecurity if ever there was one). My father was born (1911) in Lindsay. Rainfall totals were a staple of dinnertime conversation from November through April in my home while growing up. I mention this only to note it astounds me that so many Fresnans aren’t obsessed 24/7 (even in flood years) with water and rainfall numbers.
That may soon change.
I close with 10 thoughts:
• Hogg’s fill station is still weeks away from going live. Eventually, there will be a place for residential customers and another for commercial customers. There will be more than one hose for residential customers, though how many remains uncertain.
• The water for residential customers will be free. Commercial customers will pay, the amount still to be determined. Residential consumers get water only if they are city of Fresno water customers.
• Hogg says the water has been in the aquifer for at least six months. He doesn’t advise drinking it, but says it’s safe. I was up to my elbows in the stuff. I feel great as I write this.
• I understand how someone might do the cost-benefit analysis on my effort. I burned at least a gallon of gas and about an hour to get 50 gallons of water. I had to haul 400 pounds of water to the side of my house, then find a way to use a portion of it on my lawn. Some would say I went on a fool’s errand.
• My reply: I simply need to improve my personal water-hauling infrastructure (just as the city is improving its water-delivery infrastructure). Maybe I need to invest in 15 or 20 five-gallon water bottles. Maybe the way to go is two or three 50-gallon containers and something at home to hold the water. I’ll give it some thought.
• I also understand the egalitarian angle. Why should some people get free city water (those with a pickup, or spare money to buy containers, or the good health and initiative to do all the work) and others not so fortunate or energetic get none? Fair question.
Perfect equality, though, shouldn’t be the organizing principle here. City Hall is pursuing two goals with the fill stations.
First, Hogg said the sewer farm’s aquifer is getting overloaded. He wants to get rid of some water. Customers with their pickups full of empty water bottles are doing a good deed.
Second, Gov. Jerry Brown is putting heat on cities to dramatically reduce their use of potable water. Again, anything that saves drinkable water for the highest and best use (humans) is a good deed.
• I thought of District 2 City Council Member Steve Brandau as I filled my containers. The subject of recycled sewer water occasionally pops up in council meetings. Some people say it would be discriminatory for City Hall to encourage their neighborhoods to use the stuff. The critics call it “toilet water.” Brandau always says: “Send it to northwest Fresno. We’ll take all you’ve got.”
• I also thought of Woodward Park. Brandau and District 6 Council Member Lee Brand often worry about all the trees in Woodward Park dying in the drought.
Rather than wait for City Hall to come up with a plan, might there be a way to organize residents with the same concern to haul recycled water in a thoughtful, systematic way to the distressed trees?
I plan on letting my lawn die while saving my trees. Seems odd that free city water will save the Hostetters’ trees while trees in city parks die by the hundreds.
• The sewer farm is about five square miles in size. That’s about the size of Selma. The sewer farm every year gets a staggering amount of sewage and produces a stunning amount of recycled water. Fresno, caught in the worst drought in recorded history, is blessed with a deep underground lake the size of Selma located just a few miles west of town. It’s all ours, guilt free, if only we’ll go and get it.
• Here’s our future: July — Fresno — 100-plus degrees nearly every day — August more of the same — water sanctions galore. My prediction: Events will spur a lot of Fresnans to figure out how to get that free water.
And, since it’s non-potable water, landscape-irrigation sanctions don’t apply once that water gets home.
Thank you, City Hall.