Recharge Fresno chugs ahead of schedule, with one large HSR-caused speed bump

The mightiest public works project in Fresno’s 132-year history is nearing a successful finish, with one significant blemish.

The mightiest public works project in Fresno’s 132-year history is nearing a successful finish.

But leave it to that ol’ bullet train to remind us of government’s occasional and ineradicable foolishness.


Those were my thoughts as I walked home from Monday’s meeting at City Hall of the Capital Projects Oversight Board.

The board’s agenda was simple: Approve the previous meeting’s minutes, receive an update on the Recharge Fresno campaign, consider the fate of a handful of project change orders.

Recharge Fresno, of course, is the long overdue effort to get a firm handle on the city’s water supply challenges. Former Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who guided the initiative through an often cantankerous City Council and a small army of citizen critics, said Recharge Fresno’s goal is to make the city “drought resilient.”

Add in the purple pipe/recycled water project and Recharge Fresno’s price tag easily tops a half-billion dollars.

Ripping out Fulton Mall and restoring vehicular traffic to Downtown’s Fulton Street was a dandy engineering job. Getting the Bus Rapid Transit system up and running no doubt will be viewed in the same light.

The Recharge Fresno project is an epic engineering feat.

Michael Carbajal, head of Public Utilities’ water division, delivered the Recharge Fresno update. In a nutshell, the project is within budget ($429 million, as approved by the council in February 2015) and pretty much on schedule.

I say “pretty much” because “on schedule” merits a degree of flexibility when you’re talking about a half-dozen construction projects of substantial size within the larger initiative, all it covering several hundred square miles of urban complexity and environmentally-sensitive rural land.

Carbajal said the Friant-Kern Canal pipeline (4.5 miles of 60-inch diameter pipe) to the Northeast Fresno surface water treatment plant is a bit behind schedule.

“This project was most impacted by the weather,” Carbajal said.

Yet, the project should be completed by early 2018. That means San Joaquin River water will soon flow into the plant year-around rather than only nine months out of the year (the break of three months due to maintenance of Fresno Irrigation District canals). That also means less pressure on our aquifer.

The Kings River pipeline (13 miles of 72-inch diameter pipe) also should be done in early 2018.

“We are working on the last mile of the pipe,” Carbajal said. “That is considered the riskiest and most challenging because it’s closest to the river.”

The Kings River pipeline will bring water to the new Southeast Fresno surface water treatment plant. At about $160 million, the plant is the priciest piece of Recharge Fresno. City officials are pushing hard to get the plant completed by next May.

“The treatment plant is really looking like a treatment plant,” Carbajal said. “We are transitioning to bringing some equipment into the facility.”

Work on the two pipelines and the Southeast treatment plant takes place on the outskirts of town. Recharge Fresno includes new pipelines to bring the treated water to urban customers. Anyone who drives around the city is familiar with this maddening but necessary labor.

This part of Recharge Fresno is called the Regional Transmission Main. Carbajal’s report divides the project into segments. For example, Segment A1 consists of five miles of 54- to 60-inch diameter pipe to handle water from the Southeast treatment plant.

Carbajal reviewed four segments.

In conclusion, Carbajal noted that certain parts of the Recharge Fresno project have had to dip into their contingency funds rather sharply to handle cost overruns. On the other hand, certain parts of the overall project have drawn relatively little from contingency accounts. Taken as a whole, Carbajal said, Recharge Fresno most likely would close the books with money still in reserve.

It was Regional Transmission Main Segment A2 that caught my attention. It deserves the attention of ratepayers, as well.

Segment A2 is four miles of 24- to 48-inch pipe to handle water from the Southeast treatment plant. Installation of the pipe is being done by an outside contractor.

It turns out that work on part of Segment A2 appears headed for a temporary suspension – as in putting it on the backburner until an unspecified date.

We’re talking about a 500-foot section of 24-inch pipe between H Street and G Street at the north end of Downtown’s Cultural Arts District. This pipe would be just on the south side of the Highway 180 overpass. The City Yard on G Street, where trucks and buses are stored, is in this neck of the woods.

The way it was described to me, some of the treated water from the Southeast plant would head through various pipes to this 500-foot section of 24-inch pipe at H Street. The treated water would then head west to G Street. The treated water would then flow through other pipes to customers in Chinatown and West Fresno.

This 500-foot section of pipe is a chokepoint in the system. And the city can’t get it built.

The reason is what’s between G and H streets. You have the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. And you have the High-Speed Rail alignment, which parallels Union Pacific’s line.

As you may have noticed, the bullet train project is way behind schedule. It’s anyone’s guess as to the decade in which the bullet train’s rails in this area will actually get laid.

This is of considerable interest to City Hall. The 500 feet of 24-inch pipe that is to carry treated water from H Street to G Street and beyond is to be inside a 36-inch diameter casing. This casing is to be installed by the High-Speed Rail Authority.

No casing means no 24-inch pipe from H Street to G Street. Judging by comments at Monday’s meeting, no one at City Hall or the Authority has the foggiest idea when the casing will become a reality.

Hence the prospect of a suspension of this part of the project.

No one from the Authority was at Monday’s meeting. In fact, I was the only member of the public to attend.

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Carbajal and board members discuss this state of affairs. The bullet train is a State of California project. Recharge Fresno, with its state loans and its state oversight, is essentially a State of California project.

Do government programs sometimes end up working at cross purposes? If so, I’m shocked.

At the meeting’s end, when the public was invited to address the board, I asked for clarification on what I’d heard.

Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda said I had heard the essential point correctly – City Hall has been trying without success for several years to get the bullet train folks to help fix this problem.

Esqueda emphasized that a holdup with the H Street-to-G Street pipe won’t impact water delivery to Chinatown and West Fresno customers. He said Fresnans in those neighborhoods will continue to get well water. They won’t get treated water from the Southeast plant.

But getting Fresnans off well water is the whole idea of Recharge Fresno.

1 comment
  1. Thank you for this informative article, Mr. Hostetter. During the water meeting, did anyone in authority mention how our water table was impacted by this past winter’s record snow pack and considerable rain on the Valley Floor? I have been anticipating a comment. There is no problem commenting when there is little or no rain/snow. Any information will be appreciated. Thank you.

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