Water problems both physical and legal are threatening to slow development in the foothills and mountains of eastern Fresno County.

Groundwater resources are proving increasingly unreliable, causing the Board of Supervisors to impose stricter well pumping tests for new structures. Meanwhile, surface water in two reservoirs that developers have long planned to tap is legally out of reach, at least for now

Although Fresno County remains a relatively growth-friendly jurisdiction, the water constraints are making some officials hesitant. County Supervisor Phil Larson said the first question he asks anyone talking about new development is, “Where are you going to get the water?”

“We don't have any water here,” Larson explained. “They [developers] have to bring water with them.”

The Board of Supervisors was expected to give final approval to the new groundwater regulations just as CP&DR was going to press. Those regulations require landowners to prove their wells can produce at least 1 gallon of water per minute - double the previous standard. Landowners whose wells do not produce at least 5 gallons per minute will be required to have 2,000 gallons of water storage. The county will no longer allow new homes to rely on trucked-in water, which at least one 60-home subdivision currently does. The regulations apply to anyone seeking a building permit or approval of a parcel map. Since 2000, the county has required proof of water for any subdivisions of five or more lots, said Leona James, a county planning and resources analyst.

The problem is that urban refugees build a home in the foothills or high country, and then learn they have no water. They turn to the county for help, but the county has no assistance to offer, Larson said.

Some developers and contractors have grumbled about the new regulations, but there has been no widespread protest.

Last year, a group of residents formed the Sierra and Foothill Citizens Alliance to bring attention to the problem, said group President Gary Temple. Wells are not producing as they once did, and some have gone dry, he said. Temple called the new regulations “steps in the right direction.”

Besides imposing new regulations, the county has also hired hydrogeology company Geomatrix to study groundwater issues. Groundwater in the mountains is in fractures and fissures, not in a more easily defined aquifer. So predicting where groundwater lies and what impact a new well will have on an existing well is tricky. Temple also endorsed the county's decision to study the situation.

“It seems like there's something going on, and before we allow a great deal more development, we should find out more,” said Temple, an Auberry architect. “They are building houses in this area like they are going out of style. But ultimately where the water is going to come from is anyone's guess.”

At least two developers hope ultimately to get water from existing reservoirs. This is where the legal issues arise.

In 1984, the county approved a specific plan for a new town in the hills above Millerton Lake, a Central Valley Project reservoir approximately 20 miles northeast of Fresno. The plan has been amended a few times since then and the county has approved four vesting tentative tract maps, but the project remains largely the same as originally envisioned: 3,500 housing units, shopping areas, a hotel and conference center, and a golf course. The new town would cover approximately 1,400 acres. A community services area would provide a variety of services, including water and wastewater, storm drainage, parks, street lighting and garbage collection.

The county approved the project and subsequent amendments with the understanding that water from Millerton would serve the development. Developer Ben Ewell has reportedly invested more than $5 million in pumps, pipelines and a water treatment plant to serve the new town and the adjacent 400-lot Brighton Crest subdivision. The county has even taken possession of the infrastructure.

However, although the territory lies within the Bureau of Reclamation's irrigation service boundary, all of Brighton Crest and nearly all of the new town are outside of the Bureau's “municipal and industrial” service boundary. No one seems to agree on exactly how long all of the parties have known about this discrepancy. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken said the agency has known since the 1980s and informed the developer then. Ewell, who declined to speak with CP&DR, told theLos Angeles Times that he did not find out until last year that nearly all of the land was outside the boundary. County officials seem to have learned of the problem at varying times.

McCracken said the Bureau will ensure that the “place of use” boundary gets moved. “It's something that has to be drawn on a piece of paper,” he said.

However, only the State Water Resources Control Board can draw that line. And the state will do so only after preparing an extensive study and environmental impact report, board spokeswoman Liz Kanter said. That process can take years, and it has not started, she warned.

“We're waiting for the people with the water rights - in this case the Bureau of Reclamation - to tell us they want to change the use,” Kanter said.

Farther up the mountains, development near Shaver Lake also is facing an uncertain future. The county has approved about 1,400 lots in the area, and roughly half of those have been developed with homes. All development relies on groundwater, and county officials insist that 2,000 lots is the maximum they will approve until developers gain water rights to Shaver Lake. Earlier this year, while approving changes to the 600-lot Wildflower Village plan near Shaver Lake, supervisors capped the number of new homes in the subdivision at 250 until the surface water becomes available.

The Shaver Lake situation has drawn the attention of the state Department of Health Services, which has warned the county not to approve new development until water sources are proven.

Drawing water from Shaver Lake for nearby residential development may be even more difficult legally and politically than gaining access to Millerton. Shaver is owned by the Friant Water Users Group and Southern California Edison, and all of the water in the lake is appropriated elsewhere. Again, the Water Resources Control Board has the final say.

Shaver Lake area developers have stated they will gain the surface water rights within three years. But Supervisor Larson expressed skepticism.

Leona James, Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department, (559) 262-4853.
Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, (559) 488-3541.
Gary Temple, Sierra and Foothill Citizens Alliance, (559) 855-5653.
Jeff McCracken, Bureau of Reclamation, (916) 978-5100.