The Trouble with Fresno's Water Drumbeat

Beyond the Perea talking points and Brand fixes, here’s how we can demystify the NE Fresno water controversy.


I have four questions for City Hall regarding the discolored water controversy in Northeast Fresno:


1.) Where’s the map?

2.) Where’s the flow chart?

3.) Where’s the tick-tock?

4.) What’s the hook?

Don’t take these questions as a criticism of Fresno’s news media. Local reporters have done a first class job of getting the story out, with special kudos to The Bee’s Tim Sheehan and John Ellis and ABC 30’s Gene Haagenson.

But there’s so much information to digest. I need even more help.

Thursday’s City Council meeting figures to be chock full of discolored-water talk. Whether all the chatter, motions and votes clarify or further muddy the situation remains to be seen.

City Council Member Lee Brand, who represents Northeast Fresno, will be front and center. He’s expected to introduce two amendments to the Water Conservation Act (introduced nearly two years ago by Brand and current Council President Paul Caprioglio).

Both amendments affect residents with murky water problems.

The first amendment is a $250,000 rebate program so qualifying homeowners can replace plumbing fixtures. Among the qualifications: The home must have been built between 1989 and 2000 and have galvanized pipes.

The second amendment is a $500,000 low-interest loan program so qualifying homeowners can make more substantial plumbing repairs. Again, a home to be eligible must have been built between 1989 and 2000 and have galvanized pipes.

Brand also will introduce a bill that would, among other things, prohibit the use of galvanized pipes in the construction of any part of the local fresh-water delivery system.

Just about everyone in town is already aware of the bitter politics involved in this issue. Brand is running to succeed the termed-out Ashley Swearengin as mayor. Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea is Brand’s opponent.

Perea is a talented political brawler. He’s trying to stir up hard feelings among voters in the Northeast. He doesn’t need a whole lot of success up there to make a difference on Nov. 8.

Make no mistake, Brand is answering metaphorical punch for metaphorical punch. As if the rebate and low-interest loan programs aren’t enough, Brand on Thursday also will ask the council to approve a resolution that puts more teeth into water quality reporting requirements.

Local water officials must send all sorts of reports to state and federal officials on the quality of Fresno water. Brand’s resolution would require that copies of these reports also be forwarded to each council member and posted for public consumption on the Department of Public Utilities’ website.

The rebate/low-interest loan proposals and the galvanized pipe ban were part of the council agenda posted publicly last Friday. The enhanced reporting resolution wasn’t.

Council Vice President Sal Quintero on Wednesday called a special council meeting for 1:30 p.m. Thursday to tackle Brand’s enhanced reporting resolution. Bottom line: Brand is preparing for the decisive battle on discolored water.

I’m guessing everything connected to this issue will be handled after lunch.

While all this is going on, the Swearengin administration – we’re talking the Mayor, City Manager Bruce Rudd and DPU Director Tommy Esqueda – is in the midst of a special investigation into exactly what happened.

There are two kinds of special investigations, whether conducted by a government agency or a newspaper.

The first: Throw everything you’ve got at the reader. Let the sheer volume of your findings be proof that you know what you’re talking about. “Emptying your notebook” is what we called it in the newsroom.

The second: Brevity is the soul of wit (or wisdom, as wit was defined in the old, old days).

I might add that video is the very essence of the first type of special investigation.

I’m hoping City Hall’s discolored water investigators deliver a special report of the second type. I’m not asking that anyone in positions of responsibility get an undeserved break. We’re dealing with public policy, public money and public healthy. If someone did wrong, then lower the boom and tell us.

But based on my modest nosing around at City Hall, there’s so much to this issue that investigators could easily end up giving us a report of the first type. And for someone of my limited reading ability, that’s not much different than giving me no report at all.

So, I ask for a report that answers my four questions.

I want a map – maybe a couple of them – that pinpoints geographical details. Are there 30, 40, perhaps 50 homes with discolored water? Show me their locations. At some homes is the problem with a seldom-used faucet in the back of the house rather than the kitchen faucet? Show me their locations. Is treated surface water the problem in some houses and groundwater in others? Show me their locations. Is it a 10-year-old problem in some houses and a 5-year problem in other houses? Show me their locations.

I want a flow chart – maybe a couple of them – that explains the system’s chain of authority, responsibility, oversight and (most important of all) decision-making latitude. Somebody was supposed to report all discolored-water complaints to the state? OK, but who at City Hall was supposed to ensure that this bureaucrat did so? Somebody in DPU authorized the years-long purchase of bottled water for consumption in a handful of private homes, using ratepayer funds to pay for everything? OK, but who saw those receipts month in and month out and who built annual DPU budgets with those bottled water purchases in mind? The state mandated by law periodic reports about any and all discolored water complaints in Fresno, but every report the state got from Fresno showed no such complaints? OK, but who was it in Sacramento who noticed no such complaints in Fresno, noticed that Fresno with this perfection was unique among all other major California cities, and failed to connect the dots that something might be amiss with Fresno’s reporting technique?

I want a tick-tock – maybe a couple of them – that lays out key sequences of events in bite-size chunks of information. A tick-tock in newspaper lingo is a chronology with a theme. I did several tick-tocks for Bee Sports Editor Matt Lloyd when Jerry Tarkanian was very ill. One had dates and summaries of key milestones in Tark’s coaching career. Another was a list in chronological order of interesting quotes by Tark or quotes from others about Tark. A well-designed and smartly-written tick-tock (or two) would do wonders for the discolored water story.

Finally, I want a hook. Please, somebody give me this story’s hook. A “hook,” in newspaper lingo, is a sentence or two that sums up the story. A good editor won’t let a reporter proceed with a story idea unless there’s a clear hook upfront. Twenty-five words are about the limit to an effective hook. A good hook will turn into the foundation for a story that’s actually consumed by the public.

What might City Hall’s discolored-water investigators do for a hook?

“A culture of over-confidence and selective indifference in Water Division led to a regulatory disaster during the 2016 mayoral race.”

That’s 21 words.

“City officials in 2004 were so proud of their new surface water treatment plant that they hushed up consumer complaints about water quality.”

That’s 23 words.

“Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the City Council were blindsided by a challenge not of their making, but recovered to deliver clean water to all.”

That’s 24 words.

Hard work will fix the discolored-water problem. DPU’s Esqueda and his team are doing that as we speak.

But settling on the accepted historical narrative – that will be the battle of hooks.

And that’s what we’ll get at Thursday’s council meeting.

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