Swearengin's unexpected legacy piece takes shape


Much of Fresno City Hall gathered Wednesday beneath a huge party canopy on the east side of town. The occasion: The official groundbreaking ceremony for construction of the Southeast Surface Water Treatment Plant.


A dozen quick thoughts on a memorable event:

1.) The plant will be built on a site of about 60 acres on Floradora Avenue, between Fowler and Temperance avenues. Fresno Yosemite International Airport is a mile or so to the west.

It’s a largely rural area. But things are changing. Freeway 180 goes this far. And residential developers are already eyeing the farms.

I took Fresno Area Express Bus No. 45 as far east as it would take me – Fowler and Shields Avenue. I walked the remaining mile-and-a-half to the event. As I headed south on Fowler toward Clinton Avenue, a car pulled out of a side street ahead of me. It stopped. The driver rolled down the window to say hello.

It was Granville Homes President Darius Assemi, visiting the nearby Belterra by Granville Homes project.

Fresno will keep growing. The new mayor who takes office next January, should he serve two terms, will no doubt see the city pass 600,000 in population.

We’re gonna need water.

2.) The new plant, when finished in a few years, will be capable of treating 54 million gallons of river water per day. That’s merely cruising speed until all the operational bugs are gone. When going full bore, the plant’s capacity is 80 million gallons per day.

The plant’s cost: Nearly $187 million.

3.) Guests and dignitaries (invitation only) began arriving about 11:30 a.m. Scheduled starting time was noon.

We had a nice breeze. Snacks were plentiful. Everyone seemed to know everyone. The inevitable happened – people got to chatting and munching. They were having a good time.

Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda, who served as master of ceremonies, went to the microphone about 12:08 p.m.

“We’re getting ready to begin,” Esqueda said in soft, diplomatic tones. “Please take your seats.”

Pause – repeat. Pause – repeat. Pause – repeat.

Pretty soon, all were seated.

Esqueda had neatly symbolized the key to making this day happen. Plant supporters never flew off the handle. They never gave up.

4.) “We’ll try to beat the rain,” Esqueda said as the sun pounded on those (like me) sitting beneath the south edge of the canopy.

Everyone laughed. The event was off to a good start.

Actually, the rain is supposed to arrive on Friday and, if Providence smiles on us, stick around for days.

Yes, we had a depressing February for rain. I told Esqueda last week that I’d bet him a Kit Kat that we get at least 3.75 inches of rain in March. If we get that much, he replied, he’d buy two and we’d both celebrate with a sugar rush.

As I’ve said before, no one thinks about rain more than Tommy Esqueda.

5.) “Recharge Fresno” is Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s branding shorthand for what’s at play here.

Climate change or not, the harsh truth is that we Valley folks have always worried ourselves sick over water.

On one hand, we’ve got this incredible aquifer and a stunning range of mountains to the east that’s perfect for catching and storing snow.

On the other hand, a measly 10 or 11 inches of rain in the course of a November-through-April rain season has us doing handstands. Six or seven inches, especially for a few years in a row, spells hardship.

Jim Wasserman, my old buddy at The Bee, used to shake his head at my elation whenever a muscular storm blew in. A half-dozen such storms and the Valley pretty much had its yearly ration of snow.

Jim was from Ohio. He said the Buckeye State got that much rain in a month – a dry month.

6.) But, you play the hand you’re dealt. Fresno has been dipping into the aquifer for decades to meet its water needs. So has everyone else in the Valley.

Let’s not go into details of the water wars over the past four years. It’s enough to note that the new surface water treatment plant will complement a similar plant in the northeast corner of town. The Southeast plant will treat Kings River water. The Northeast plant treats San Joaquin River water.

Fresno has always had legal rights to big amounts of water from the two rivers. We’ve just never been serious (at the political level, not the Public Utilities level) about building the infrastructure needed to move and treat the water.

The two treatment plants are part of a larger water plan that includes upgraded pipes and a system that distributes recycled water throughout the city for things like landscaping.

Our groundwater level keeps dropping because we pump such so much out of the aquifer. In the near future (2019 or so), we’ll get more than half of our drinking water from the two treatment plants. We’ll then begin replenishing the aquifer.

It’s all rather complicated. But it all secures our future.

“This is truly an exciting day,” Swearengin said.

7.) The audience included Council President Paul Caprioglio and council members Oliver Baines, Steve Brandau, Lee Brand, Sal Quintero and Esmeralda Soria.

Swearengin had nice things to say about all six – even Quintero, who cast the lone “no” vote when the council in early 2015 approved a series of rate hikes to pay for the $429 million upgrade to the water system.

8.) Brandau and I got to chatting about his January 2015 news conference in front of downtown’s historic Water Tower.

The backstage politics were complex. Bottom line – Brandau called the news conference to say he wouldn’t vote on water rates until the city took another stab at getting low-interest state loans for the water projects.

The city had a relatively small state loan in hand. If we’ve got to borrow, Brandau had said, then let’s make a heroic effort to get every low-interest dollar we can before heading to Wall Street lenders.

One thing led to another, and now it appears every borrowed dollar for the Recharge Fresno program will come from a low-interest state loan.

Brandau told me on Wednesday that the lower interest payments will save local ratepayers $220 million.

Politicians are born to brag. But savings like that are worth bragging about.

9.) The W.M. Lyles Company of Fresno is building the Southeast treatment plant. Big machines were busy in the background as Wednesday’s ceremony unfolded.

Caprioglio when he took the microphone pointed in the direction of the steady roar.

“That’s music, truly.”

10.) Caprioglio knows what all good storytellers know – you can’t go wrong by ending where you began.

In concluding his remarks, the council president again pointed to the machines and workers laying the foundation for Fresno’s new Southeast Surface Water Treatment Plant.

“Our future is right behind us.”

11.) “For decades,” Swearengin said, “the City of Fresno has worked to create a plan that ensures a sustainable water future for our community. That plan is now a reality with construction of this essential project that will ensure a safe, clean, reliable water supply for Fresno for generations to come.”

When you remember that we live in a Valley where whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’, that nicely sums up the reason for Wednesday’s smiles.

12.) I began thinking about the significance of Wednesday’s ceremony the night before. I finished Tuesday by reading a chapter in “The Passage of Power,” the latest installment of Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The book’s final chapters deal with the dramatic tale of what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act. John Kennedy had been assassinated in November 1963. Southern Congressmen were dead set against the bill. The new president was trying to calm a shaken nation.

At the same time, LBJ was committed to changing America’s future in a profound way.

Henry Wilson, an aide to one of LBJ’s top assistants, said at the time that if the administration got the proposed Civil Rights Act into law “we’d be credited with having a good year.” And if the administration failed, Wilson said, it made no difference what else was passed – “we’ll be credited with having a bad year.”

The same idea is true for how local history will view the eight years of Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

Clean, safe, reliable drinking water is as much a part of our civil rights as being able to eat a meal at a public lunch counter. Mark Grossi and Andrea Castillo, my former colleagues at The Bee, have written with passion and at length on this very issue.

If Swearengin, side-by-side with the City Council, had not gotten the Recharge Fresno program passed in its entirety, it would make no difference what else she did in her eight years in the mayor’s chair. She would have failed.

But Swearengin and the Council got it done.

That, by itself, makes the Swearengin era a resounding success.

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