Farm town residents block water rate hike but are still stuck with a massive water debt

March 1, 2023
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
El Porvenir and Cantua Creek are small farm towns in western Fresno County that have racked up hundreds of thosands of dollars in water debt. SOURCE:
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Residents of the small town of El Porvenir in western Fresno County successfully blocked a water rate hike Tuesday at the Fresno County Board of Supervisors meeting. 

The western Fresno County community, where nearly half the residents live in poverty, is already carrying a water debt of  $400,000. That debt has been incurred over the last few years as El Porvenir has had to buy surface water on the open market and pay for expensive treatment.

The town, along with nearby Cantua Creek, was supposed to be getting water from two new groundwater wells by this time. But the well project, which began in 2018 and was supposed to be completed in 2021, was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So, residents have had to continue relying on the expensive surface water. 

Fresno County buys about 100 acre feet of water each year for the towns from Westlands Water District at $432 per acre foot. Even after the water goes through a costly treatment process, it’s not considered safe to drink. The State Department of Water Resources Control has been providing bottled drinking water to residents since 2015. 

Still, residents have to pay a high price for the undrinkable water. El Porvenir residents pay a base rate of $104 per month, plus extra depending on how much water they use. 

The most recent rate study proposed more than doubling the base rate to $264 per month. 

The proposed hike had to pass a “protest vote” of residents, however. 

County staff reported at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting that more than half the votes turned in by residents were against the rate hike, blocking the action.

El Porvenir and Cantua Creek are County Service Areas, special districts governed by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Residents pay into a fund for some basic services, which the county then administers.

Mariana Alvarenga, policy advocate for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, urged the county to wipe out the debt for the community. 

“For years residents have asked for a detailed explanation and solution for their mountain water debt and have urged the county to forgive this debt as allowed by state law,” said Alvarenga. “The county can convert the existing water debt into a loan to then have the ability to forgive the debt through a supermajority vote.”

While the board did not discuss eliminating the debt, the higher proposed rates will not be instituted for El Porvenir.

“We’re checking to see what kind of next steps we have available,” said Christopher Bump, principal staff analyst for Fresno County’s Department of Public Works and Planning. “We will be scheduling a meeting with the community in the near future to also go over what those next steps are.”

This comes on the heels of a request in January by Fresno County Waterworks District No. 18 for a $1.3 million loan from the county to help alleviate water issues for a luxury community called Mira Bella near Millerton Lake.

Supervisor Brian Pacheco, who represents the El Porvenir area, did not return calls from SJV Water but he said during that January meeting that he was concerned a loan to help Mira Bella would set a precedent for helping other communities with water issues.

“…we were faced with shutting the water off in Cantua Creek because they had a similar issue (in 2015),” Pacheco said at the January meeting. “ And we told them they needed to raise their rates in order to continue their water or we were going to shut their water off. And that’s been the policy of this board.

“If we want to change that going forward, I’m all on board – but be prepared. We’re going to do it for everybody.”

The board agreed to have county staff consider making the loan to Fresno Water Works District 18. The staff recommendation has not come back to the board.

While Cantua Creek is also carrying a water debt, its rates were lowered to about $60 per month because the community had additional connections added to its system and a larger base of customers to spread the cost, said Bump. 

Aside from providing bottled water, the state Water Board also chipped in $100,000 toward water costs from 2014-2018 and is funding the new wells at a cost of $11 million. The Department of Water Resources has also paid $2.7 million to build a new water distribution system for the towns.

Jesse Vad, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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