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'Debacle in the hills': A conversation with the reporters behind the story of Mira Bella's water

Newly developed homes in the Mira Bella development near Millerton Lake start at around half a million dollars, but the drinking water is unreliable and residents have had to foot the bill for water infrastructure repairs.
Gregory Weaver
Newly developed homes in the Mira Bella development near Millerton Lake start at around half a million dollars, but the drinking water is unreliable and residents have had to foot the bill for water infrastructure repairs.

You see them all over the San Joaquin Valley: Sparkling new housing developments promising luxury living outside the big cities.

But a recent investigation from our non-profit reporting partners shows the risks of building communities in areas with unreliable access to drinking water. Back in the 1980s, county officials knew the risks of building homes in the Mira Bella development near Millerton Lake in the foothills of Fresno County, but they greenlit the project anyway—and now residents and taxpayers are paying the price.

In this interview, KVPR’s Kerry Klein talks with the reporters who produced this story, Jesse Vad of SJV Water and Gregory Weaver of Fresnoland, about the lengths Mira Bella residents are going to to solve their water problems, and what it demonstrates about who does and does not have access to drinking water in California.

Read the transcript of the full interview below.

ELIZABETH ARAKELIAN, HOST: Sparkling housing developments promise luxury living outside the big cities. But a recent story shows the risks of developing in an area with unreliable access to drinking water. KVPR’s Kerry Klein spoke with reporters Jesse Vad and Gregory Weaver from our reporting partners SJV Water and Fresnoland. In this interview, Gregory starts us off, by introducing us to a community near Millerton Lake known as Mira Bella.

GREGORY WEAVER: You see these massive gates seven, eight, nine feet high. It's got fountains. It's got some redwoods. But even when you look at it, something seems a little bit off. You look at the tree tops and all the tops are singed as if you know, somebody had taken like a blow dryer and just kind of crisped up the redwoods. And our reporting showed that this is likely due to these water restrictions that Mira Bella has episodically gone into nearly since the moment that the residents moved in.

KERRY KLEIN: So it's meant to look like a luxurious development.

WEAVER: Yeah, certainly this thing had huge ambition behind it.

KLEIN: So this community near Millerton Lake, it was built on the promise of abundant groundwater, but that has not been the reality. So Jesse, describe what the water situation there is like today.

VAD: The community is on three wells and these wells are called hard rock fissure wells. I won't go too much into detail, but essentially the wells rely on water that comes up through cracks in underground granite and that makes it difficult to really do much with these wells if water supply fluctuates. And in recent years, especially over the last year, the water supply has just plummeted. One of the wells collapsed and went dry, the other wells slowed to a trickle. So this is not a reliable area when it comes to water supply on a well system like Mira Bella is relying on.

KLEIN: As your reporting showed, this development was first envisioned 40 years ago and some of the earliest infrastructure was built back then and so there's also this aging infrastructure, there are leaks and a lot of the residents are being asked to pay for these things as they arise.

VAD: Yeah, that's right. And even when this development started, you know, when they first tested the wells, they did have a strong showing of water but there were many government officials and residents in the area that knew that that original showing of water didn't mean anything in terms of long-term reliability. And there were a lot of red flags and people saying, you know, this is not a reliable area. Despite what you see, this doesn't mean that this is a good fit for a community to be on a well system. And we're seeing the kind of exact predictions of those warnings now.

KLEIN: Right, so developers knew of these risks from the start and yet the permits, everything was green lit.

VAD: Yeah, everything was green lit and you know, those warnings were pretty much ignored, at least that's what we were told in our reporting. And yeah, it didn't seem like this development really faced any serious pushback.

KLEIN: Okay, so developers knew these risks from the start, residents have been facing these worsening and worsening water problems, and finally last year residents were able to secure a drought relief grant from the state. So is that the light at the end of the tunnel?

VAD: You know, I think a lot of people in the community are hoping it is but the complications kind of continue as we found out in our reporting. There is a deal in place for another development for this water district to buy water every year and, it gets kind of in the weeds, but essentially they're going to try and peel off some of that water from a prior deal to accommodate Mira Bella. But that water district disagrees with this and said outright to us, you know, we haven't heard anything about this plan from this district and that's not what we agreed to. So it does not at all seem like there is a firm and secure agreement on where the water is going to come from and how Mira Bella is going to be accommodated with this new infrastructure.

KLEIN: Right and the development that this water would presumably be coming from has not itself been built yet.

VAD: Yeah, it's a completely just open dirt lot and so it's kind of a strange situation where, you know, theoretical water will be coming from a deal with a development that is not even beginning to be built yet.

KLEIN: Okay. So all of these obstacles aside, there is a state grant in the picture, the county may also be getting involved. So in other words, taxpayers are now going to be paying millions for an issue that perhaps should have never been a problem in the first place. How did this all happen?

WEAVER: The 80s and 90s were a booming era for Fresno suburban sprawl. The city was paving over a quarter mile of farmland with tract homes every year and the county had this new regional plan which earmarked the area around Harris's land for houses.

KLEIN: Harris being Donovan Harris, the original developer of this community

WEAVER: So Harris, he wanted a piece of the suburban craze too.

VAD: And this was pushed through, blatantly ignoring the red flags that were raised. It's not difficult now to find people who admit that this should not have been done but back then none of those red flags were acknowledged by the county.

KLEIN: And then, the latest wrinkle is that earlier this month, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors agreed to consider bailing Mira Bella out with an additional $1.3 million loan to help repair and rebuild this water system. And yet many rural communities in Fresno County and elsewhere have been making similar requests to their county governments for years and failing. So what does this all say about who has access to drinking water in California?

VAD: And that's one of the big points that has come up since publishing this story, is that a lot of what we see in the Valley are small poor communities, often farm worker communities, who are left with nothing in their community to drink. They have no drinking water oftentimes, their wells are going out, and places like Cantua Creek have been pleading for funds for decades and getting nothing. So I'm not going to make any statements as a reporter on what that means. But I think it's kind of clear that you can look at what situation arises and how the county reacts and who gets money, how quickly. It is something that was discussed in that meeting, I believe.

WEAVER: Yeah, the Board of Supervisors chairman last year, Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, said so much as, and mentioning Cantua Creek as well that, if the county approved this loan there's a sort of precedent that's set. He said that he would like the county to pay that similar benefit to rural communities across Fresno County who are also facing similar water shortages, but don't have the sort of property values that Mira Bella has.

VAD: And just to be clear, I'm not blaming the residents of Mira Bella and saying, you know, look at these people getting taxpayer money. I actually don't believe it's on them. I think they're just taking steps that you know, they think are right to try and get themselves out of a situation that is obviously unfortunate. But I think when it comes to who receives money from the state and from the county, yeah, I think it is quite telling in a way.

KLEIN: Very interesting. Gregory Weaver is reporter at Fresnoland. Jesse Vad is at SJV Water. Thank you both for being here and talking with me.

VAD: Thank you so much, Kerry.

WEAVER: Thanks, Kerry.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.