$2.4 million project will help private utility prepare for a possible drought by identifying, repairing leaks in aging water lines underneath downtown Visalia
VISALIA — As Tulare County braces for a second drought in the last decade, California Water Service is working through the night to ensure Visalia’s aging water lines don’t leak out the precious resource.
Since February, California Water Service, a private utility firm serving 28 communities including Visalia, has been working to replace more than 2,500 feet of water main underneath Main Street. Steve Johnson, manager of Cal Water’s Visalia District, said crews have been working in the middle of the night, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and only on weeknights, Sunday through Thursday, to minimize interruptions to downtown businesses. The project is also being done in large sections, including new tie-ins with laterals connecting with the main down side streets, to reduce the risk of any major issues.
Johnson said the precautions are warranted since the lines beneath downtown are more than 100 years old and were already leaking in some areas.
“A lot of this infrastructure has been in the ground so long it becomes a huge risk,” Johnson said.
It’s a risk Visalia and the surrounding area can’t afford.
On March 1, Visalia moved into Stage 2 restrictions of its water conservation ordinance for the first time since 2017, at the tail end of the historic drought, when the groundwater level reached an all-time low of 142 feet below the surface. Cal Water currently places the groundwater level at 134 feet below the surface, depending on the location, and the city estimates it may drop to a record 143 feet sometime this year. Tulare County declared a drought emergency on April 27 as Tulare County was on track for the third driest year on record and predicted to become the driest barring significant rainfall through the dry summer months leading to the end of the water year, which runs from October through September. A week later, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded his emergency drought proclamation to include 41 counties, including Tulare County. Earlier this month, Johnson encouraged customers in Visalia to conserve water as much as possible.
Johnson said the Visalia district is well situated to weather the drought as long as customers continue to conserve water. He said the district has wells as deep as 300 feet east of the city and 900 feet west of the city, as the aquifer slopes deeper toward Corcoran, the former bottom of the Tule Lake bed. Last week, Cal Water began developing its 30-year master plan for the Visalia district and the private utility firm already conducts routine audits in an effort to identify leaks, based on usage and the age of the pipes. This is after massive investments to improve the start-up and shut-down process for valves and pumping facilities in the case of massive failures, flooding and repairs.
“We didn’t have as robust of a system then but now we are well prepared to meet the needs of our customers,” Johnson said.
In July 2014, at the height of the last drought, the state approved an emergency order mandating water agencies, customers and private well owners to drastically cut back on water use or face fines as high as $10,000. Johnson said Visalia was already in conservation when the mandate was implemented in the midst of a historic drought and was unfairly criticized for not meeting the 20% reduction even though it had already implemented a self-imposed 20% reduction long before the order. Johnson said we are unlikely to see a similar state mandate during the drought the state is potentially entering now.
“I have not heard of any state mandates being discussed and would be surprised if I did,” Johnson said.
The difference with this drought will be implementation of the state’s groundwater monitoring law. Passed in 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires water agencies like Cal Water to recharge the underground water table with enough water to offset what it pumps out year over year by 2040. Johnson said the law will primarily affect agriculture wells, which pump out far more water than urban wells on a per acre per year basis.
“Our Visalia District customers have done a tremendous job with their conservation efforts, and we look forward to partnering with them again as we face another drought,” he said.
Cal Water’s portion of the partnership is preparing for drought by identifying leaks and potential service gaps and upgrading infrastructure to minimize loss, such as the Main Street project. Johnson said the $2.4 million project is on track to complete on time and on budget. The project would be paid for by customers but over an extended period of time. Cal Water goes through the rate case process with the California Public Utilities District every three years. In the process, Cal Water presents a proposed budget, which includes its costs to operate the system as well as expenses to maintain it and the total revenue needed to meet both goals.
The last increase, issued to the CPUC in 2018, was approved in December, according to Cal Water. Johnson said the rate increase amounted to an average of about $5 per month over a three-year span beginning this year and ending in 2023. Cal Water will apply for a new cycle sometime later this year.
“Although these efforts are critically important, they can’t take the place of customer conservation efforts,” Johnson said.
Cal Water encourages customers to utilize its conservation program to help save water. The utility offers rebates on high-efficiency appliances and devices; a free conservation kit that includes a garden hose nozzle with shutoff valve, high-efficiency showerheads, faucet aerators, and more; educational resources; and a smart landscape tune-up program that includes an irrigation system evaluation along with installation of efficient devices and repair of irrigation leaks at no cost to customers.
Residents and businesses should also continue observing the prohibited uses of water that have been in effect. Water-wasting activities include, in part, using water on outdoor landscaping that causes runoff onto adjacent properties or paved areas; using water during or within 48 hours after measurable rainfall; using a hose to wash vehicles unless the hose has a shutoff nozzle or similar device; and using water in a fountain or other decorative water feature, except where part of a recirculating system
Cal Water customers can visit calwater.com/conservation or contact the Visalia District Customer Center at 559-624-1600 for information on conservation programs along with a full list of prohibited uses of water.
Additionally, Cal Water reminds residents in the City of Visalia to observe any outdoor watering restrictions by the City that may be in effect. Current watering schedules may be found at gogreenvisalia.com.
Cal Water’s Visalia District serves about 147,000 people through 46,700 service connections in Visalia and about 2 million people through 492,600 service connections in California. The utility has provided water service in the area since 1926. Additional information may be obtained online at www.calwater.com.