The City of Fresno has long relied on groundwater to meet its needs, but a new surface water treatment plant is slated to begin operating this summer. While the city faced complications with their last treatment plant, they’re hoping the lessons learned help solve problems before they start.
Fresno’s new Southeast Surface Water Treatment Plant is huge, and built to do one thing: Treat water from the Kings River, and send it out to Fresno residents.
Ben Carlisle, the construction manager for the site, gives us a tour. He describes to us how the water arrives and moves through the plant.
“Water will run through here, serpentines through. These are plate settlers, then water goes over those weirs. It goes into the settled water channel, back down through the ozone building; ozone into filters; filters to the reservoir,” Carlisle finishes. “And that's it.”
We stand at the top of the structure, looking down into basins that will eventually hold water; right now, they’re empty.
The building sits on nearly 50 acres of land in southeast Fresno, and is one of the biggest projects the city has undertaken. When it’s up and running at full capacity, it should be able to treat 80 million gallons of water a day, more than twice the amount the city can treat now.
The whole process is part of the Recharge Fresno project. Mike Carbajal is the planning manager with the city.
“Once these facilities come online in the next couple months, it will enable the city to shut off a large number of groundwater wells that have been the primary source of drinking water for the city of Fresno for many decades,” Carbajal says.
The idea is to make Fresno more drought resilient.
“Historically, Fresno has relied primarily on our groundwater supplies,” says Carbajal. “Over the last 80 years we've seen groundwater levels decline over a hundred feet, and that means our wells have to be drilled deeper, we have to buy more energy to lift that water in order to deliver it to our customers.
By using surface water from rivers and snowpack melt during wet years, the city can let the wells rest, and replenish. So, when the next dry spell hits and surface water is limited, Fresno can use groundwater.
This southeast location isn’t Fresno’s first plant to treat surface water. In 2004, Fresno began operating a plant in northeast Fresno. Soon after, some residents saw discolored water coming out of their faucets. The problem wasn’t widespread, but it was concerning.
Kassy Chauhan is with the State Water Resources Control Board. She’s been working with the city in development and implementation of this plant, and also was involved in development of the northeast facility.
“At the time, we didn't really recognize there were any challenges,” says Chauhan. “Later it was discovered that there were concerns and fortunately the timing was great in that we were able to take any lessons learned from northeast plant, and apply those same lessons learned at the southeast plant to hopefully avoid any discolored water concerns in the southeast Fresno area.”
She says that the city is making sure the chemistry of the water, once it’s treated, doesn’t impact the pipes like it did with the northeast plant.
The southeast plant will be serving the oldest part of Fresno, and that could create some problems. To prepare, the city has been flushing the water mains. In some places, water will be running in different directions. The city says, residents may notice higher water pressure once the plant is running. They’ve been working to avoid problems, but the city admits that some parts of the system are really old.
“If we do have impacts, we will have very robust reporting system where reports will get documented and reported and addressed in a very timely manner,” says Chauhan. The hope is “that we don't have anything that has potential to go on for a long period of time unnoticed and untreated.”
Cordie Qualle is a faculty fellow at Fresno State, and he’s spent years in the water resources industry. He says treating water can be a tricky business.
“Treating water is a highly technical endeavor and in order to do that you have to get a lot of things right,” Qualle says. “It's not by the seat of the pants, there's a lot of testing and a lot of experience that goes into this, but nothing's exact and you don't know what's going to happen until you put it out into the wild so to speak, and see how things mix up.”
Not only can it be challenging to get the chemistry right, but Qualle says treating surface water compared to groundwater, is expensive. The whole Recharge Fresno project costs nearly $450 million.
In 2015, Fresno increased the water rates to help pay for this project as well. So, if the cost of accessing, treating and distributing surface water is higher than the cost to use groundwater, why do it?
“It is one more bullet in the gun that helps us have a sustainable water system, or supply, for the community,” says Qualle. “Fresno is trying to do their part to reduce their groundwater use so other people, so there’s more groundwater to go around.”
The Southeast Surface Water Treatment plant is almost finished and the city is also making sure the residents are ready. Officials are holding community meetings next week to explain the transition to residents.
“They are our eyes and ears out there,” says Carbajal, with the City of Fresno. “And so as we go through it, if there are any questions or they see anything that doesn't seem right with the water, we want to know about it.”
The city hopes to run the plant at full capacity this summer. And moving forward, they see the glass is half full as they prepare for the next drought.