Workers watch as an excavator lifts dirt out of a trench on McKinley Avenue at Clark Avenue in Fresno, where large water pipes will be laid to deliver treated surface water to customers. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
Over the past few weeks, business has been slow for Super Stereo on East McKinley Avenue in Central Fresno.
As for why, the answer lies outside the car audio shop east of Clark Avenue, as most of the street pavement has been broken up by work crews and heavy machinery digging deep trenches that will house massive sections of water pipes.
“You know, the construction started at the beginning of the year at the intersection of Blackstone [Avenue] and McKinley, and it was on for almost four months. And then it started at Fresno Street for two months.
Unfortunately, I am between Fresno and Blackstone, so yes, we were blocked, and we continue to be blocked,” said Susan Burgos, who described herself as a supervisor for the business.
Street blockages like that, along with the resultant traffic backups, can be particularly hard on a business like hers, as it depends heavily on drivers passing by — many students from Fresno City College. So it’s no surprise Burgos estimated that her sales are down by about 70 percent since the street work started.
A couple of businesses down, Peter Ng, owner of Discount Auto and Tires, said the street work has hurt his business, but most of his business is generated online, so he can tell customers to come around the back and avoid the mess on McKinley.
“It’s something I can live with,” Ng said, adding that the work on the street likely is important, though neither he or Burgos knew exactly why those big pipes were being laid under McKinley.
It’s not just happening on their block, as the work to lay the water pipes ranging from 24 to 66 inches in diameter began in early January on the west end of Olive Avenue.
When done some time late next year, the hook-shaped “regional transmission main” will extend mostly east to west under 13 miles of Fresno streets.
But the main is just part of a larger water infrastructure project for Fresno that will require digging up about 40 miles of city streets to lay new pipes, the construction of dozens of miles additional pipelines — mostly outside the city limits — and the construction of a second surface water treatment plant for Fresno now underway.
It’s all part of Recharge Fresno, a series of water projects supported mostly by a series of water rate increases for Fresno customers implemented over five years, which voters here approved in 2015 to pay the projected $600 million tab on the far-reaching project, said Michael Carbajal, Fresno’s planning manager.
“The overall project is really an investment in water infrastructure to best utilize available surface water supplies from the San Joaquin and the Kings rivers that the city has had access to over the last 50 years,” but Fresno used only a portion of the water it was entitled to — mostly to fill ponding basins to percolate water underground to help fill the aquifers under the city, he explained.
In 2004, the city started making use of more of that water by purifying it at its newly built Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility.
The result was that, on average, about 12 percent of the city’s potable (drinking) water is processed surface water, taking some of the demand off of Fresno’s primary water source: 260 municipal wells.
But the water being pumped out of those wells has long outpaced the amount going back into the aquifer, Carbajal said.
And that problem has become more acute in recent years, as the Valley suffered the worst effects of the worst drought in California’s history.
That prompted then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the Fresno City Council in 2013 to dust off a project first formally proposed in 1989 to increase the city’s capacity to treat surface water and pump it to a large swath of the city so less groundwater would be needed.
That original idea was a reaction to bad droughts in the Valley during the 1980s, and even then many city officials thought it was a good plan.
“If anything, our problem has been since that plan was first proposed — and it kept on being brought up by the City Council every couple of years or so — they kept kicking it down the road because nobody wanted to go to the rate payers to say, ‘We are going to increase you water rates,’” said Mark Standriff, a city spokesperson.
“Then the [latest] drought happened,” so Swearengin and the City Council took action to push the plan forward and launch a ballot initiative for the rate hike, which voters passed. The first increase took effect in July 2015.
Now Recharge Fresno is well underway.
Once the new, $200 million Southeast Surface Water Treatment Facility near Olive and Armstrong avenues is completed, it will be able to convert up to 54 million gallons of river water a day into drinkable water, which when added to the capacity of the city’s other treatment plant will generate a combined 110 million gallons of drinkable water a day.
That would result in 65-70 percent of the city’s potable water coming from surface water.
And this capability has become more critical, because Fresno and other California communities with highly at risk groundwater systems — which pretty much includes the entire Valley — are staring down the barrel of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
That law essentially requires that plans be developed and implemented in the coming years to significantly curtail groundwater drafting and improve recharge of aquifers.
Recharge Fresno was in the works before SGMA came into play, but it will put the city in a good position to comply with SGMA, Carbajal said.
“If Recharge Fresno didn’t happen, we would have been put in the position of having to scramble, along with a lot of other agencies that weren’t planning for this, like we have been. We would be scrambling to try to figure out how do we comply with SGMA,” Standriff said. “That would put us in a very difficult situation.”
In addition, the Fresno-Clovis Regional Wastewater Reclamation Facility in southwest Fresno recently underwent an upgrade that allows it to generate purer water than before.
So instead of just directing its treated water to ponding basins to seep into the ground, the cleaner water — though not clean enough to drink — is being directed to one local farm for irrigation and plans are to install eight to 10 miles of additional pipes under city streets, connecting the wastewater plant to Roeding Park, downtown, parts of Highway 180 and other places where the treated water can be used in lieu of potable water to irrigate lawns and landscaping on public areas, schools, cemeteries and green spaces.
The city also is looking at making the treated wastewater available to be connected to downtown buildings with water-based cooling systems, Carbajal said.
“There will be purple pipes capable of putting out up to 25,000 acre feet a year” of treated water from the wastewater plant, Standriff said.
A single acre-foot is equal to one acre of land covered a foot deep with water.
And while a series of canals will get San Joaquin River water from Millerton Lake to Fresno, plans are to build a 13-mile-long pipeline to get water from the Kings River to the new surface water treatment plant.
As for laying the regional transmission main, that is expected to finished in November, but after that’s done, 23 turnouts on that pipe will have to be connected to existing water lines, requiring more streets be torn up.
And drivers, residents and business operators already upset with the closed and blocked streets and traffic congestion across Fresno from these projects likely will not see it end until March 2018.
Tom Jones, who had to get through a backup of traffic on McKinley Tuesday afternoon to pick up an air conditioner, said, “It’s too much traffic. It’s congested all the time.”
For his part, Standriff said the city has taken unprecedented actions to make residents and business operators aware of what is going on. And commuters who drive into these areas can check for traffic advisories and learn about Recharge Fresno online at www.rechargefresno.com.
As for those people wondering why all this roadwork and traffic disruption is happening, Standriff said, “The answer would be it’s a short-term inconvenience for a long-term benefit.
“When Recharge Fresno is finished — the surface water treatment plant, the transmission main, recycling, the pipes that are connecting us with the Kings and the San Joaquin River — Fresno will be most likely the only drought resistant city in California.”