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Brand courts Ag leaders as City embarks on wild water adventure

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The battle for endorsements is heating up in Fresno’s mayoral race.

Lee Brand did a “meet and greet” Wednesday evening with about 35 local agriculture leaders.

The District 6 City Council member delivered on his end, answering questions for more than an hour. He then asked the farmers to deliver on their end, giving him public support in his mayoral battle against Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea and community activist H. Spees.

“I came back with a lot of endorsements,” Brand told me on Friday.

Names? They’ll come in due time, Brand said.

The confab was at the Piazza Del Pane Italian Café on Palm Avenue near Herndon Avenue in north Fresno. Buddy Mendes (Board of Supervisors chairman), Andreas Borgeas (county supervisor) and Anna Borgeas (Fresno Chamber of Commerce vice president) took care of preparatory details.

“The main purpose was to introduce myself. It was a who’s who of Ag leaders in Fresno County,” Brand said. “Anybody with a pulse knows that water is a huge challenge for the Valley and our city.”

City Hall is in the beginning stages of a $600 million water infrastructure project that figures to dramatically transform how this part of the Valley consumes the precious liquid.

At the heart of everything is construction of a huge surface water treatment plant in Southeast Fresno. It will complement an existing treatment plant (smaller, but still of considerable size) in Northeast Fresno.

The city has entitlements to about 180,000 acre feet of water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. In a normal rain year, we actually get it.

The problem has been using what we pay for. River water needs treatment before it goes into homes. No treatment plant, no river water for our municipal needs.

The Northeast plant can’t come close to treating all 180,000 acre feet. On top of that, it’s been up and running for only about 10 years.

Fresno uses well over 100,000 acre feet a year. How do we quench our thirst? We pump a lot from the aquifer.

Even without the historic drought, our groundwater level was dropping too fast to maintain this habit long-term. Four years of meager rains only accelerated the harm and alarm.

Then the state got involved. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will regulate all those straws in the aquifer. Our Wild West days are disappearing.

The new surface water treatment plant will enable Fresno in normal rain years to get most of its water from the rivers, giving the aquifer a much-needed break.

Then there’s the “purple pipe” project now gathering momentum. The start is at the wastewater treatment plant (the proverbial “sewer farm”) west of town. The finish (years down the road) is just about any corner of town with a need for highly treated but non-potable water.

Think landscape irrigation.

What’s all this got to do with farmers and the mayor’s race?

It wouldn’t take much effort for Ag interests to view City Hall with caution, if not concern.

You know all that river water we had entitlements to, but not the infrastructure to use? In years past, it went to farmers. That will change when our surface water treatment plants get going full speed.

And when those treatment plants are going full bore, and it’s a normal rain season, Fresno will find itself with more water than it needs (especially if conservation efforts continue to thrive). Where will that extra water go? Not necessarily to farmers. Most will probably go into recharge basins, slowly but surely raising our groundwater level and nurturing what will become an invaluable reserve.

There’s the purple pipe project. Farmers have long bought thousands of acre feet of Fresno’s treated wastewater for certain types of crops. What happens to this source if Fresno’s ever-growing population takes a strong liking to treated wastewater and the purple pipe delivery system expands in concert with demand?

Finally, there’s storage.

Of course, everything we’ve talked about so far is storage-related – aquifer, recharge basins, sewer farm, treatment plants.

But there’s renewed interest in a more traditional form of storage – dams, and the lakes they form. Seventy years ago, dams were seen by most in the Valley as an unqualified blessing. Today, they’re highly political. Pro-dam forces need every ally they can get. Nabbing the support of the municipal government of California’s fifth largest city would add considerable bench strength.

Brand on Friday said agriculture “is the economic engine that drives the county and the city.”

That gives you a sense of what he told the Ag leaders at the meet-and-greet.

Perea will be no slouch when it comes wooing Ag support for his campaign. He recently laid out his hopes for the proposed Temperance Flat Dam to a room full of Rotarians in North Fresno. Perea clearly knows water, as befits a member of a governing board that seldom meets without digging deep into water challenges.

As to Spees’ views on water … H., give me a call. I’ve watched Brand and Perea on the stump for years. I haven’t watched you. Nor, I suspect, have most voters.

I’m begging for an invitation to your next show.

Or will it be your first show?

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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