A sliver of state money will help upgrade drinking water systems in eastern Fresno County mountain communities that have been plagued by both drought and devastating wildfires.
The money is part of an overall $300 million in Department of Water Resources funding aimed at drought impacts.
In Fresno County, the Sierra Resource Conservation District was awarded $525,000 to upgrade technology for five community groundwater systems in the mountains.
The five water systems were all impacted by the 2020 Creek Fire, one of California’s biggest wildfires, which burned nearly 380,000 acres in the Sierra Nevadas.
And in this part of the mountains, groundwater is the only option.
“It’s not business as usual, it’s a critical resource.” said Steve Haze, executive director of SRCD. “We’ve got a lot of adjustments to attend to.”
The state funding will pay to upgrade water systems at four schools and the community of Alder Springs. The funds will help to establish a supervisory control and acquisition (SCADA) system for each system. That technology will enable real time water data collection so each system can be carefully managed.
It’s a critical update for the schools and communities which have no other water options, said Haze.
Alder Springs was almost completely destroyed by the Creek Fire which razed 44 out of its 45 structures. The community lost its wells too. The conservation district is in the process of applying for more grant money from DWR for domestic wells. But the most recent funding from DWR will only be for the SCADA technology.
The DWR funding is part of its Urban and Multibenefit Drought Relief Program which offers financial assistance for projects targeting drought impacts.
“As the world continues to warm, the awarded project funding will help upgrade the water systems to better manage the region’s finite groundwater resources,” wrote a DWR spokesperson in a statement. In the southern Sierra region, “these resources are especially important because of the community’s reliance on groundwater and fire risk.”
Combined with drought, the conditions are a double whammy for Sierra towns.
“You have a public safety challenge,” said Haze. “You got water quality issues, you got sediment transport, you got debris flows.”
When wildfires chew through the mountains leaving bare hillsides, mud washes into streams and lakes during the following runoff season. That can devastate local water systems. Sediment buildup in reservoirs can impact storage capacity, runoff can clog delivery systems and muddy ash can threaten drinking water quality.
Haze said he anticipates needing more funding and projects to improve the groundwater systems in Sierra Nevada communities because of these risks which are compounded by the ongoing drought.