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Behind Fresno’s under-the-radar approach to water

No Agua

Behind Fresno’s under-the-radar approach to water

I had a chat last week with Tommy Esqueda, director of Fresno’s Department of Public Utilities. We talked about patterns in the local weather.

I now sense that Esqueda and the entire town will soon be chatting about patterns in your water bill.

First up – the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and Fresno’s newest effort to comply.

The act requires us to begin replenishing our aquifer. You’ve got to have water to do that. We like to consume water. Plentiful rains don’t always come.

That creates an obvious dilemma.

One part of the solution is making the best use of wet years. Excess water is made available to towns like Fresno for recharge. Recharging means putting water in basins so it can percolate into the aquifer.

That takes land for the basins and time for the percolation. What do you do if your recharge basins are full and time is dragging by, yet more water is available? The water won’t be there forever – Fresno either takes it or it heads down the river and out to the sea.

The City Council on Dec. 7 took a no-risk stab at an answer. It approved a deal with a company called The Water Group that could lead to a much faster rate of recharge in our basins.

In a nutshell, the company says it has a patented system that speeds up Mother Nature’s percolation. Esqueda described the system as putting unique “straws” in the ground. The depth and spacing of these “straws” are designed to maximize groundwater recharge.

The company says its system can deliver two to four times as much water into the aquifer as the old-fashioned recharge method. The company and City Hall will conduct an experiment at Leaky Acres to see if the claim has merit. The experiment comes at no expense to the city. If the company is right, the two parties become partners and public money changes hands. If the claim is groundless, the company pulls out the “straws” at its expense and the two sides part ways.

“Right now, the question is: Does it work?” Esqueda said. “But the possibility of getting more water into the ground in the same footprint is exciting.”

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, a key player in public debate leading up to the approval of the Recharge Fresno initiative, told me in an email that he has studied The Water Group’s system.

Vagim said he has no financial interest in the product. He said he wanted to see if the whole idea was phony.

“To me, it looks real and has a very strong possibility of achieving what has been promised by the vendor,” Vagim said.

Esqueda and I moved on to another topic: The status of the Recharge Fresno project itself.

It’s a huge project, especially when you add the purple pipe-recycled water component. Bottom line: If we use more surface water from the rivers, we rely less on pumping from the aquifer.

I’ll speed things along here. Esqueda said the Friant-Kern Canal pipeline to the northeast surface water treatment plant is open. That means San Joaquin River/Millerton Lake water is getting to the plant through a pipe rather than Fresno Irrigation District canals.

That’s a big deal to me. Why no ribbon-cutting ceremony?

“We’re trying to stay under the radar and just get it done,” Esqueda said.

By March 2018, Esqueda said, the Kings River pipeline should be delivering water to the new southeast surface water treatment plant. By June, Esqueda said, “we’ll go full speed ahead” in delivering the treated surface water to customers throughout Fresno.

Finishing the construction of the southeast plant is definitely a big deal. Esqueda said city officials would probably wait until September for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Mark it on your calendars.

Roeding Park could be irrigating its grass with recycled water by next spring, Esqueda said.

To summarize, City Hall is counting on technological advances to help push more water into our aquifer. And City Hall is nearing the end of a transformation in Fresno’s water system that can only be described as an engineering marvel.

Now all we need is rain. We’re nearly two months into the November-April rain season. Have you noticed that we’ve gotten almost no rain so far?

“We don’t have a drought – yet,” Esqueda said.

The last two years saw Fresno get a total of more than 31 inches of rain. But you no doubt recall that the four years before them were as dry as any we’ve ever suffered through.

“It’s not without precedent that you have a couple of (wet) blips, but you’re still in this big drought,” Esqueda said. “That’s the question: Did we just get a couple of good blips in something like a 10-year drought, or are we out of it?

“Fortunately for us, in working with FID, we’ve got water in Millerton and we’ve still got water behind Pine Flat. So, we’ve got enough water to get us through sort of full strength next year. But in the water business, you’re always looking one to two years ahead. Last year, we had a beautiful snow pack. That gets us through this year and we’ll be good next year. What I’m concerned about is the year after.”

Where’s the weak spot in the picture Esqueda is drawing? Storage.

Let’s leave climate change aside for the moment. If our weather pattern over the past century or so is a fairly stable mixture of wet, dry and normal rain years; and if Fresno is slowly but surely getting its act together when it comes to conservation; and if we’re doing all we can to get water back into the aquifer; and if our alliance with FID means we’re able in the wake of good rains to store a year’s worth of water reserve behind the current storage infrastructure; and if the 2016-2017 rain year was so generous that we saw precious water running out to the sea because there was no place to keep it; and if common sense tells us it’s better to have two years of water reserve up in the foothills instead of only one – then why aren’t we doing all we can to build our reserve capacity?

We’re talking Temperance Flat Dam. Esqueda said officials at City Hall and FID are talking about how nice it would be to have 100,000 to 200,000 acre feet locked up in a Temperance Flat Dam for use in an emergency.

Esqueda recalls how the phones in Valley water agencies were ringing off the hook earlier this year as the huge snowpack melted.

“All of us were getting calls: ‘Do you want water? We’ve got water running.’” Esqueda said. “It would have been wonderful to say, ‘Just hold it back there. I’ll get it when I need it.’”

Something like Temperance Flat Dam, in addition to existing storage behind the Friant and Pine Flat Dams, would help smooth the “peaks and valleys” of our rainfall patterns, Esqueda said.

Something like Temperance Flat Dam wouldn’t come free. That’s why Esqueda and his DPU team are studying all sorts of weather, financial and political patterns. Should the Temperance Flat Dam dream become legitimate possibility, Esqueda would give his recommendation to Mayor Lee Brand and City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter: Yes or no to a major financial stake in the dam’s construction?

That stake would come from water ratepayers.

Said Esqueda: “You’ve got to pay to play.”

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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