Bass Lake residents, officials discuss water consolidation project

Residents in county districts of Marina View (MD7) and Lakeshore (MD6) at Bass Lake will likely vote by the end of this year on whether their water systems should be consolidated with privately-owned Bass Lake Water Company.

For years, water at both districts, created in 1963 which serve about 130 homes, have contained high rates of arsenic, uranium, gross alpha, and manganese - carcinogenic substances - that exceed federal compliance standards for safe drinking water. If a liter of such water is consumed each day for 70 years, the chance of being diagnosed with cancer increases by 10%.

To try and fix such water issues, state and county officials, along with Steve Welch, president of Bass Lake Water Company (BLWC), made their case for a consolidated system to an audience of about 20 during a meeting at The Oakhurst Library July 23.

Essentially, the idea is to remove the county from managing the Marina View and Lakeshore districts, by placing those water systems under control of the BLWC.

Such work would include intertied pipelines, tanks, a booster pump station and a water treatment system to remove all cancerous materials, with hopes to finish all construction by the end of 2018.

Environmental studies and other documentation following well tests and other requirements have already been submitted to the state for approval, said Alvina Prakash, the project’s engineer.

Because the districts are known as disadvantaged systems due to about 10 years of undrinkable water, the state would fund 80% of the project’s costs - $3.493 million - through grants, with ratepayers covering the difference.

“This is a very desirable since private financing is very difficult for small districts to obtain,” Welch said.

Mark Reitz, an engineer with AECOM Fresno, explained through a 20 or 30-year, zero percent loan, that meant annual water rates for special district residents would increase by $180 to $332, added on to their current rates of $564 in Lakeshore and $440 in Marina View. BLWC customers currently pay $699 a year.

Should residents in the approximate 130 district-served homes refuse that plan per a Proposition 218 vote planned for later this year, Kassy Chauhan of the State Water Resources Control Board told the crowd MD6 and MD7 residents would instead pay the full costs for necessary improvements, meaning water rates as high as $1,700 a month.

Welch said his company can elect to annex them into the BLWC system or not, depending on an evaluation of the benefits to BLWC current customers without a vote since BLWC is a private company.

“The state doesn’t have authority to force consolidation,” Chauhan said. “But because we’re proposing state funds for this project, we’re proposing the most feasible, long-term solution ... if state funds are going to be used, then this is the project that’s going to be constructed.”

Several residents at the meeting were irked by such provisions and claimed the state, county, and BLWC had left them out of deciding on the best way to move forward, with little to no meetings - and lackluster notification - before the Thursday, July 23 gathering.

The process to test consolidation began about two years ago, with a feasibility study accepted by the state and approved by the Madera County Board of Supervisors in October last year.

Residents further contended there were cheaper options, and though they could vote down the project, they would suffer immensely and as a result were effectively being held hostage.

“The disturbing part of this is we come to this meeting and the conclusion’s already been made,” Don DeBernardi said. “They want us to consolidate, or we’re in trouble.”

Any ballots not returned are counted as “yes” votes, Prakash said, per state law.

Some residents said they supported the project and would be happy to pay extra - about 960 BLWC customers paying the highest at an annual $1,040 estimated annually - in order to have clean water.

When asked why BLWC should absorb the districts’ problems, Welch said both sides will benefit.

BLWC, which normally relies on Willow Creek with wells as backup, would have access to stronger groundwater wells, Welch said, while Marina View and Lakeshore residents would be put on a much-improved, more-reliable system at relatively minor costs.

“I think for any deal to make sense it has to be good for both parties,” added Welch when asked if his main goal was to add to his customer base. “There’s a liablity we face with a system that was put in in the 60’s. Old pipes, lack of fire hydrants ... with the benefits come the responsibilities.”

Improved water systems could also mean lower fire insurance rates, officials added.

Several steps including funding applications and approval by the Board of Supervisors remain before a vote can be taken, though Ahmad Alkhayatt, deputy director of the county’s Public Works Department, said the goal is to send out ballots by the end of the year.

Proposition 218, passed in 1996, amended the California Constitution to require local governments obtain approval of property owners in a local ballot measure before increasing tax assessments.