How Fresno hopes to handle El Niño

Projections for rain are all over the place. George Hostetter looks at what Fresno will do if El Niño delivers heavy rain.


Tommy Esqueda is already thinking about some of the most remarkable water out there.


It’s called “215 water,” for short. And it’s another reason why Fresno’s Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is where the action’s at these days.

Esqueda, DPU’s director, remains busy overseeing early stages of a $425 million upgrade to the city’s water system. The biggest piece is construction of a huge surface water treatment plant in Southeast Fresno.

This is a familiar story. As is the past four years of historic drought. As is the preciousness of water in a semi-dry region such as our Central Valley.

But Esqueda also is finding time to prepare for a wet winter.

The weather experts are predicting an immediate future full of El Niño. In a word, rain!

Of course, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the weather. But what might happen if we got, say, 20 inches of rain? And what might happen if all the rain came in the coldest months, producing an unusually heavy snowpack?

We veterans of the Valley know what would happen.

The Sierra Nevada is huge. The same can be said of the watershed for the San Joaquin River northeast of Fresno. Fresno and the Valley floor are pretty much flat as a pancake. The late spring and summer are hotter than a drugstore pistol.

The snowpack melts, the water-storage system on the San Joaquin is overwhelmed, the bosses of Friant Dam are forced to open the floodgates all the way, and everyone down river from Millerton Lake is in trouble.

Granted, such a scenario may seem like small potatoes for any place as water-starved as the Valley. But floods are not to be taken lightly. My house in northeast Lindsay was flooded twice in the 1960s. I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning and find shin-deep water in your bedroom.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Friant Dam, has a program to help deal with a flood scenario like the one I described. According to a City Hall report, the Bureau during an especially wet winter can declare “that a temporary supply of water may exist that is not storable for Central Valley Project purposes.”

When that happens, the Bureau essentially says to certain favored customers: We’ve got too much water. You want some? The price is real good!

Fresno in a normal rain year is entitled to buy 60,000 acre feet of Millerton Lake water. There was a time when 60,000 acre feet would meet about 40% of Fresno’s annual water needs. We’ve done such a good job of conservation that, even with a growing population, 60,000 acre feet is well over half of our yearly needs.

On top of that, Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s water-system upgrade puts a premium on storing water in wet years so we’ll have water in dry times. She calls this “resiliency.” It’s vital to Fresno’s economic and social future.

Back to the Bureau. No one knows for sure when the Bureau in a wet year will make such a declaration of excess water. But one thing is certain. Any entity such as Fresno that might want some of that water must prepare in advance. That means filing with the Bureau a signed 215 contract if you want to be in line for 215 water.

The number refers to Section 215 of the Reclamation Reform Act of 1982.

Esqueda on Oct. 22 sought the council’s OK to sign a 215 contract. The council said yes.

Now, as you may recall, October was a warm month. Fresno was struggling to keep up with Sacramento’s mandate that we cut our water consumption by 28%. The city’s water cops were making sure we didn’t irrigate our lawns more than twice a week. Trees continued to die.

Then four things happened.

  1. City Hall cut the outdoor watering schedule to one day a week starting Nov. 1. The one-day-a-week schedule was supposed to begin Dec. 1. But city officials were mighty worried about that 28% state mandate.
  2. November came and it actually cooled off. And it started raining. Not buckets and buckets. But we got a fair number of storms and the snowpack started to build.
  3. December came and it got cold. And the string of storms picked up in intensity.
  4. Finally, while just about everyone else in Fresno was focused on the moment at hand, Tommy Esqueda started thinking about 215 water.

Last Wednesday, I paid a late afternoon visit to Esqueda’s office on the fourth floor at City Hall. Numbers were on our minds.

Fresno at that point had 4.89 inches of rain. That wasn’t twice the normal amount for that date, but it was close. Another storm was predicted for Christmas Eve.

There was a bit more than 170,000 acre feet behind Friant Dam. That’s a lot of water. But it’s also only 33% of Millerton Lake’s capacity.

“So,” I asked Esqueda, “are you doing anything on the 215 front?”

“No, it’s too early.”

“Come on, Tommy. I know you better than that.”

Esqueda opened up a little.

He said there have been good storms in Northern California. He said a lot of water is heading into the delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet. He said there’s an intense debate about what to do with that water – let it stay in the delta (environmental reasons) or turn on the big pumps and send it to various parts to the south (agriculture and city reasons).

My thought: Forget the smelt.

Esqueda said Bureau operators at any dam, including the one at Friant, must deal with a complex formula full of ever-shifting statistics.

Here’s a hypothetical.

There are predictions for a very wet winter. Flood-control is vital to life and property. There’s a certain amount of water behind the dam. Storms dump snow at higher Sierra elevations. The storms deliver rain below the snow line. This rain flows into the lake. More storms add more snow to the snowpack and more rainwater to the lake. The lake fills while the snowpack builds. Time moves on.

The dam operators can’t stand still. They must weigh all sorts of variables and “what ifs.”

For example, if they let Millerton fill to the top while 25 feet of snow builds in the watershed, and then an usually warm storm hits (the storied Pineapple Express, for example) and melts the snowpack, well, so long Mendota and Firebaugh.

And if the dam operators act early in an apparent wet season by releasing water from behind the dam, then the rest of the season turns dry, such precaution is sure to be condemned when the warm weather arrives and everyone is begging for water.

All this and more is always going through Esqueda’s mind. It’s his job to think ahead. It’s his job to get every drop of water he can for Fresno.

And he’s got that 215 contract in his pocket.

While the rest of us were doing last-minute Christmas shopping, Esqueda was trying to figure out when the Friant Dam operators might hit the 215 button – even if they barely touched it at this early point in the season.

Esqueda also was figuring out where he would store the 215 water should he hit the jackpot.

You see, Fresno (thanks to Public Utilities, the Metropolitan Flood Control District and the Fresno Irrigation District) is blessed with an impressive system of ground-recharge basins throughout the city. Everyone wishes there were even more basins. We won’t at this point go into the reasons – they have to do with the scale of Fresno’s San Joaquin and Kings river-water entitlements, and our tardy embracing of surface water treatment plants. It’s enough for now to note that community leaders are well aware of the value of basins that help recharge our aquifer.

But it only stands to reason that, if storms have come so hard and heavy that Friant Dam operators are calling up their 215 contract customers and saying “time to buy your extra water,” then those same 215 contract customers (i.e. Fresno) are looking at their recharge basins and seeing every cubic inch full of water from the same storms.

We haven’t gotten to that point in the 2015-16 storm season. But we might. What’s Esqueda to do?

Esqueda said he’s pitching ideas to the Bureau.

For example, Esqueda said, let’s say Fresno was told it could buy 10,000 acre feet of 215 water. Why couldn’t the Bureau release the water into the San Joaquin River, let it flow toward the Delta, then pump it into the San Luis Reservoir (which, after the long drought, is nearly empty)?

The San Luis Reservoir is a long way from Fresno. But customers served by the San Luis Reservoir have entitlements to stored water much closer to Fresno. You get the picture – a trade is possible if only Fresno can make a hefty deposit in the San Luis Reservoir.

Esqueda told me Bureau officials nixed his idea – they said the whole point of the 215 contract is to divert water from the river channel in times of emergency.

I suggested that his idea did precisely that, and had the added benefit of doing so at a time when people weren’t hitting the panic button.

Esqueda said he’s not the boss of Friant Dam.

I close with two more quick points.

First, there’s good reason for the feds and Fresno City Hall to work as a team on possible 215 water.

That’s because the role of Fresno in the region’s water picture is changing. People outside of Fresno are coming to depend on us for clean and reliable water.

For example, the City Council in January is expected to accept a nearly $3 million low-interest state loan so Public Utilities can connect its water system to the Orange Center School District south of town (and outside the city limits).  Orange Center’s water system is unsafe and unreliable.

According to a city report, the loan has an interest rate of zero. Once the project is done, the principal will be forgiven.

In other words, the state is giving Fresno a $3 million grant so the city can provide safe, reliable drinking water to a customer (many of whose constituents are poor and minorities) located outside the city limits. This is in keeping with state law that requires cities with strong water systems to help their struggling neighbors.

That’s a great idea, one in tune with the best sentiments of America. But Fresno first has to have the water.

Second, Christmas Eve came the day after my chat with Esqueda.

We got another cold storm in the evening– a third of an inch of rain, putting us well over five inches for the season.

More snow fell in the San Joaquin River watershed.

I’ll bet visions of “215” were dancing in Tommy Esqueda’s dreams as Santa made his rounds.

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