Water acts as centerpiece to history, legacy. But who will write it?

As Mayor Swearengin cements an unexpected legacy and makes Fresno history, George Hostetter asks: who will write it?


Don’t be fooled by the ho-hum response. History was made Thursday at Fresno City Hall.


The big question: More history is coming, but will generations yet unborn ever know it?

The City Council with barely a peep awarded a $158.8 million contract to WM Lyles Co. to build the 80-million-gallon-a-day surface water treatment plant in Southeast Fresno.

The council also gave its OK to an $8.9 million consulting contract (Carollo Engineers) for the Southeast plant and a $19.3 million construction contract (Garney Construction) for another phase of the Sewer Farm’s “purple pipe” recycled water project.

Each vote was 7-0. Everything – staff reports, questions/answers, voting – took about 15 minutes.

Where, you ask, is the history in all this?

After all, plants designed to treat surface (i.e. river) water are nothing knew in Fresno. There’s one in the northeast part of town dating back to the Alan Autry era that can churn out some 20 million gallons of water a day. Another plant, much smaller, sits in east-central Fresno.

Consultants? City Hall generally acts like it wants to singlehandedly keep these high-priced Answer Boys (and Girls) in perpetual business.

And the dream of Sewer Farm officials to get Fresno to annually use 25,000 acre feet of recycled water (and give our aquifer a break) has been around for years.

The history is this: The awarding of the construction contract for the Southeast Surface Water Treatment Plant is the start of a new Fresno.

Our city as a municipal corporation is 130 years old. In many ways, we’re the envy of the world. Our future is even brighter. And through it all, we’ve sucked water out of the ground like the stuff will last forever.

It won’t, of course. But there’s a solution – use water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers.

We’ve always known this was the solution. But for reasons too many and convoluted to explain here, we dragged our heels. We went to war against each other over how to get the water we need.

The council’s vote on the Southeast treatment plant was the public declaration that the war is over. A new era of water is upon us.

All that’s left is to build everything and have the rains return to normal. That’s all.

The council, perhaps looking ahead to the Thursday evening hearing on a new Development Code (quick – name the Top Ten municipal development codes in the United States), was the essence of brevity in the wake of the Southeast plant vote.

“I want to thank you for this first step in the right direction,” Council Member Lee Brand said to Public Utilities Department staff.

Council Member Paul Caprioglio was pleased to see the $158.8 million price tag come in a cool $1.2 million under the city’s estimate.

“Please keep up the good work,” Caprioglio said.

Council Member Esmeralda Soria and Council President Oliver Baines expressed similar sentiments.

But Public Utilities Director Thomas Esqueda knew the moment’s true importance. At the end of the third of the three water votes, Esqueda nearly jumped out of his seat in the council chamber’s front row before heading to the back of the room. A half dozen men were sitting there. Esqueda shook hands with each.

They were from the Lyles company.

Then Esqueda walked briskly to the Administration side of the dais. There he shook hands with City Manager Bruce Rudd and Assistant City Manager Renena Smith.

Then Esqueda headed to the waiting area outside the council chamber. He was saying to himself: “Don’t screw this up.” He was referring to the water project. There are so many challenges ahead.

Esqueda was ready to greet the Press. There was only me.

I didn’t ask questions. I made a promise.

“The letter will come tonight,” I told Esqueda.

This is what I meant.

I left The Fresno Bee on Oct. 23. But I wasn’t ready to leave work.

I went to City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 3, to research a news story. I thought I could sell it somewhere.

Public Utilities had a water well in east-central Fresno with contamination problems. The well had been shut down. A routine item was soon to go to the council: Spend about $500,000 (money already in hand) so the well could be fixed in a way that would produce clean, safe drinking water.

Esqueda and city Communications Director Mark Standriff were generous with their time. They met with me in Esqueda’s office shortly before the usual 5 p.m. closing time (but not for them; I know they work long hours).

The three of us talked. Bottom line: I found the topic fascinating, but there was no story there that any news organization would ever buy.

Before I left, I threw Esqueda and Standriff something I’m sure they didn’t expect. I made a business offer.

“You know,” I said, “when Mayor Swearengin is 85 years old – and she will be that age someday – people will look back at her administration here and say the most important thing she did, bar none, was this water thing.

“General plans come and go. Development codes – no one cares. Fulton Mall is nothing. But this water project, this crazy, complicated, all-encompassing, drive-everyone-nuts water project, that’s what people will remember about Ashley Swearengin.

“Native Valley boys like me, especially old ones who grew in a small Tulare County farm town like my Lindsay, know what water means. We know instinctively what a miracle it is to turn on the kitchen tap and get a glass full of the stuff. We know what happens to farmers when the stuff disappears.

“And now Fresno is at a turning point in the Valley’s water story unlike any turning point in our history. Dramatic events involving water have unfolded in the last five years in this City Hall. Dramatic events are about to unfold in the next three or four years.

“This story will be lost if it’s confined to staff reports for City Council meetings. We can’t let that happen. I want to write that story. The city should sponsor the telling of that story. And I can to it for a price that is, uh, …”

Standriff with a smile finished my thought: “… acceptable to all.”


Said Esqueda: “I like it.”

One thing led to another over the next two weeks. Esqueda saw me at City Hall one day.

“How might this work?” he said. “Write it down. Send it to me.”

I said I’d put a few thoughts in a letter. He said fine.

Here’s the letter. It’s important to get it in the public domain. It deals with public policy.

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