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City Hall steps in for County in bubbling rural water crisis

Fresno City Hall

City Hall steps in for County in bubbling rural water crisis

City Hall is delivering contaminant-free water to a rural school in Henry Perea’s Supervisor district.

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By George Hostetter and Alex Tavlian

Perhaps the summer’s most important water story is happening at Orange Center Elementary School, south of Fresno.

You see, the kids at Orange Center can’t get good drinking water from the school’s normal system. They and school staff have to drink bottled water provided by the state. But the City of Fresno’s water division is coming to the rescue.

The why and how of this under-the-radar story figures to reverberate through Fresno history for decades to come.

If all goes according to plan, city officials in August will tell a contractor to get to work building what’s being called the Orange Center Loop.

The city currently has a water line along Cherry Avenue that extends about 2,000 feet south of North Avenue. The plan is to extend the line along Cherry to Central Avenue, take the line east on Central to East Avenue, then take the line north on East until it connects with another existing water line (which also extends about 2,000 feet south of North).

In short, the Orange Center Loop is a pipeline project in the shape of a big “U.” It will connect a chunk of rural land south of town to existing city water pipes.

What’s the big deal? Well, the area encompassed by the Orange Center Loop is outside Fresno’s city limits and sits in the Supervisor district of Henry Perea, who not-coincidentally is running for Mayor of Fresno. The area is within Fresno’s sphere of influence, a technical term identifying where the city is likely to grow. Still, outside the city limits is outside the city limits.

And for the most part, Fresno’s Public Utilities Department – and the water division’s ratepayers – don’t serve rural areas outside the city limits.

The Orange Center Loop opens up a whole new world for Fresno City Hall.

What’s at play here is a statewide change in how California’s scarce water supplies are regulated. The policy impetus comes from Sacramento. What’s uncertain is what happens when regulatory theory collides with real life.

It all begins with the historic drought. We had a nice 14-plus inches of rain last winter, but for all we know that may be just a deceptive blip in a continuing environmental disaster.

The response from Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature included two interesting laws: the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and SB 88. Brown signed the latter into law on June 24, 2015.

Here’s a piece of the Legislative Counsel’s summary of SB 88: “This bill would authorize the state board (State Water Resources Control Board) to order consolidation with a receiving water system where a public water system, or a state small water system within a disadvantaged community, consistently fails to provide an adequate supply of safe drinking water. This bill would authorize the state board to order the extension of service to an area that does not have access to an adequate supply of safe drinking water so long as the extension of service is an interim extension of service in preparation of consolidation.”

Barely a month after Brown signed SB 88, the Fresno City Council agreed to build the Orange Center Loop.

As noted in the July 30, 2015 staff report to the council, Orange Center School has had water troubles for years.

Orange Center “is currently unable to provide potable water for approximately 410 students and staff,” the report stated. “The school is classified as a severely disadvantaged community and has experienced water system contamination issues (lead and total coliform) over the last six years. The school’s on-site water well was installed in the early 1950s, later modified in the early 1980s, and has exceeded its useful service life in providing potable drinking water.”

Orange Center School is on Cherry, about halfway between North and Central. City Hall, Orange Center School officials and the state have been talking about a solution for quite some time.

The council blessed the Orange Center Loop with a 7-0 vote.

Michael Carbajal, Public Utilities’ Water Division Manager, and Dejan Pavic, an engineer in the Water Division, discussed the Orange Center Loop project on Friday. Here’s their scoop:

The project has evolved over the years. The initial plan was to build the loop, then have the school simply connect to the city’s safe, clean water supply. Then it was determined that the school’s plumbing system was pretty much falling apart and needed to be replaced.

Planning for the loop was well underway. Planning for a new plumbing system is moving along now, but trails the loop project’s timeline. That means the loop project will be finished before the plumbing project.

Bottom line: City officials expect the loop project to be done by this December. The plumbing project probably won’t begin until Winter Break 2016 or Spring Break 2017. (Don’t want all that construction noise to keep students from learning their three R’s.)

Orange Center School’s irrigation system (for the playgrounds) will hook up to city water several months before the drinking fountains get there.

But that’s not all to the Orange Center Loop project. This area has a fair amount of rural residential development. Those houses will hook up to city water.

And on the northeast corner of Cherry and Central is a small unincorporated community called Daleville. Many of its residents are low-income. The place has an unreliable water system – the wells are shallow and light producers. All in all, not a good situation.

A spur from the Orange Center Loop will bring safe, clean, reliable city water to Daleville.

The Orange Center Loop and its offshoots should be done by next summer. Cost – about $3 million, most coming from the state, some coming from the feds. None comes from the general fund or Water Division reserves.

Customers along the Orange Center Loop will pay the same rates as regular city customers.

“We’re looking forward to seeing a child at Orange Center drinking safe city water out of a school drinking fountain,” Carbajal said.

The Orange Center Loop appears to be an engineering feat, pure and simple. Admirable and professionally executed, of course, but little more. What makes it so historic in my eyes?

The Orange Center Loop is all about the consumption of geography.

This is the Fresno Water Division’s first foray into an unincorporated area since the passage of SB 88. A reliable supply of water, as we’re discovering the hard way, is more important to urban development than anything else, even freeways.

Fresno is rapidly building a safe, reliable, resilient water system thanks to the leadership of Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the City Council. No need here to go into all the details. It’s sufficient to note that the state legislature may well have been thinking of Fresno when it wrote SB 88.

Combine Fresno’s superb water system with the looming mandates of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, SB 88’s humanitarian focus and the hodge-podge nature of rural-residential development along two-thirds of Fresno’s boundary (minus Clovis and the San Joaquin River) and you’ve a scenario in which Michael Carbajal’s team builds a lot more Orange Center-type loops in the coming decades.

And if there’s ample economic and environmental wisdom in consolidating these areas into Fresno’s municipal water service, then there’s probably ample reason to consolidate these areas into other Fresno municipal services.

Can you say “annexation mania”?

Just don’t call it sprawl.

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  1. Dan Waterhouse

    July 11, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    I believe an industrial development in the same area will also be hooked into this loop.

  2. R. Tate

    July 12, 2016 at 11:12 am

    I believe the city is trying to entice H.S.R. to put their maintenance facility out there somewhere and that is the real reason that they are running “the loop” furthermore I believe that the city continually fell short when trying to secure grants to run water out to where this maint. facility and it wasnt until they added the school into equation that they qualified for these grants.
    So if I dont stand up and applaud the city for this humanitarian effort, its because the city was doing wat the city does best looking out for itself or maybe that was just a dream I had
    One last thing how much is it going to cost these poor people to “hookup” to city water possibly more than there house is worth?

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