Water & Drought

Aid coming for Fresno County’s water-short towns

Tom Boswell of Shaver Springs plugs in a pump (bottom left) that allows him to water his front yard, which sits uphill from his water barrels.
Tom Boswell of Shaver Springs plugs in a pump (bottom left) that allows him to water his front yard, which sits uphill from his water barrels. mbenjamin@fresnobee.com

Cantua Creek and Shaver Springs are on opposite sides of Fresno County, yet both have a similar problem: very little water, and what they do have is tainted.

Fresno County, which oversees water services in each community, has large projects proposed for each, but the projects will take years to finish. In the meantime, residents are being told to conserve.

Both communities will rely on state grants or loans to get them through the worst drought in modern California history.

In Cantua Creek, 18 miles south of Mendota on the Valley’s west side, about 75 property owners opposed raising their water rates in February. The higher rates were because the cost of raw water had tripled and the district’s residents voted against paying bills that were expected to exceed $100 per month, 50% higher than their previous bills.

It led state officials to provide grants to keep water flowing to residents until June 30.

Since then, the county also secured another $22,000 grant effective July 1 that will keep water flowing to Cantua Creek’s 75 customers through next June, but residents must approve conditions of the grant, which include conservation and paying their bills. The county expects a second grant next year to again make up the residents’ financial shortfall, said John Thompson, the county’s deputy director of resources and administration.

In Shaver Springs, a subdivision of 70 homes six miles west of Shaver Lake, the water supply is tainted by naturally occurring radiation, forcing the community to search for expensive new sources, all of which rely on rainfall.

The county just received $167,000 in state funding to truck water to Shaver Springs homes if wells go dry as the county projects will happen this summer. The funding also will help pay for a well pump replacement.

Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in each community.

Cantua Creek

The $22,000 grant is being used to offset the costs of the higher rate. Each Cantua Creek customer will continue to pay about $72 per month and the grant will make up the difference between the higher rate and lower rate. Under conditions of the state grant, residents of the primarily farm worker community will have to pay higher fees if they exceed a monthly water allowance of 6,000 gallons per household. Those rates are tiered based on how much water is used but will start at $1.42 per 1,000 gallons, the county’s Thompson said.

It still won’t change water quality for residents. The county uses disinfectants in the community water system that exceed the state levels for contaminants.

Even though the water exceeds state contaminant levels, Thompson said it is safe to drink as long as residents don’t use it as their primary source of water — about a gallon a day for 70 to 90 years, Thompson said.

“The water is now potable, it just exceeds (contaminant levels) for disinfectant byproducts,” he said.

$22,000 state grant for Cantua Creek each of the next two years to offset higher water rates

The same holds true for the neighboring town of El Porvenir, three miles west of Cantua Creek on Clarkson Avenue, where residents pay more than $100 per month for water from the same raw water source.

Leticia Fernandez of Cantua Creek said last week that residents don’t want to drink the tap water. She buys bottled water and wants bottled water brought to the community so residents don’t have to travel 15 to 18 miles to San Joaquin or Mendota to buy bottled water at a filling machine or pay for water truck deliveries. It would be up to the state to provide bottled water to the community, said Amina Flores, principal analyst for Fresno County’s special districts.

Fernandez said tap water isn’t tempting to drink, sometimes it comes out brown from her tap and is more frequently brown from El Porvenir faucets.

Beyond the grants to buffer their bills, no other immediate plans exist for their town and Fernandez said residents “don’t have many other options.”

In the meantime, the county continues planning a multimillion-dollar water system that will combine water for Cantua Creek, El Porvenir and other, smaller nearby communities. The project, which is expected to take about two years, will be paid for with state money and pipe clean, potable water to the communities when the project is done in a couple years.

Leticia Corona, a policy advocate for the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, plans to meet with county and state officials about moving quickly on the water consolidation project.

“We want to make it a priority for the state,” she said. “That’s when the residents will have clean water at a lower water rate.”

Advocates also are working with the state to get bottled water for the community. Bottled water will be needed until until a consolidation project is built, she said.

Shaver Springs

The Shaver Springs water district has one well that is contaminated with radiation-type elements from the granite that underlies many Sierra Nevada communities. A second well is not producing because of the lack of precipitation, officials say. For now, the district relies on water form a neighbor’s well.

Wells in the area are drilled into underground granite formations. These rock formations have fissures where water settles and can be drawn up by a well, but the fissures offer no long-term guarantees and the underground rock formations need replenishing from precipitation.

Drilling deeper into rock fissures is far more costly than well drilling on the Valley floor. The Shaver Springs homes were built in the early 1970s and water problems surfaced in the 1980s when uranium was detected in the subdivision’s best-producing wells.

$167,000state grants for Shaver Springs will pay for trucking water and a well pump replacement

A study is underway to learn if there are potential nearby well sites that produce more water than the district’s wells produce now. The district has paid to drill additional wells, but the results ended with more tainted water, dry holes or minimal flow. To fix the problem, district residents are paying a $970 annual parcel fee to get a state loan for a new system while paying to use a neighbor’s well in the interim.

Eventually, the fee could pay back a 20-year loan to locate a well and treat the water if it’s contaminated. It’s expected that the cost to find a water source could reach $2 million to $3 million.

At the entry to the tiny community a white board sign posts the percentage of water in the well tank for the hilly tract of mid-sized single-family homes. Earlier this year, the tank had around 80%. Last week, despite heat and dryness, it was 95%.

“Nobody’s watering,” said resident Tom Boswell, who collected water in 55-gallon barrels over the winter. “Trees are dying, but we’re doing pretty well; the attitude up here is tremendous.”

Boswell, a retired teacher, is doing all he can to conserve. He collects rain water in barrels that water his back yard, a recirculation pump on his hot water heater to move hot water to the shower faster and uses pails to collect shower water.

When he was unable to water his front yard, he bought an electric pump last month to push water from the barrels uphill to hose down his front garden.

Since the rainy season is over, Boswell’s barrels will become depleted, so he and his plumber are working on a project that will take gray water from his bathroom and washing machine.

“We can cut the lines from the washer and shower and bring both lines together to dump into a 50-gallon barrel,” he said.

The barrels lined up outside his home have a spigot at the bottom that’s fitted for a hose that can be used to spray the back yard.

He estimates he can get 300 gallons each week from the washer and shower.

Boswell, who is willing to use any alternative to save water, doesn’t take credit for his conservation efforts.

“Go to the Internet,” he said. “You’re going to see it.”

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