NORTH FORK — A plan to build a new water treatment facility to service the North Fork area continues to flow forward.
“We’ve been making pretty good progress,” says Ray Gutierrez, an engineer in Madera County’s Public Works Department, which is overseeing the project known as the North Fork Consolidation Plan.
A joint venture between the Chawanakee Unified School District (CUSD) and Madera County, the long-awaited plan has actually been in the planning stages for almost 10 years.
CUSD is working in tandem with the county after both entities applied for grant funding and were directed by state water officials to work together on a project.
This week, CUSD Superintendent Darren Sylvia said he hopes the new treatment facility will be providing district students with clean drinking water before this year’s high school freshmen graduate.
“Our intent right now is to try to break ground on the new plant in 2020,” Sylvia says. “Everything at the moment is moving along nicely.”
The project was initially known as the North Fork Water System Improvement Plan but took on the new moniker after CUSD and the county joined forces.
“The origin of this plan goes all the way back to when Dr. Steven Foster was [CUSD] superintendent and Mark Logee was here,” Sylvia says.
Logee, then the District’s director of maintenance and operations, came up with the initial plan for the treatment facility, according to Sylvia.
The plan as it is currently configured has been “working its way through the approvals process” for more than two years, Gutierrez says. An engineer in Madera County’s Public Works Department, he is the project point person for the county in the service area known as Maintenance District 8A (MD8A).
Because of high amounts of arsenic and manganese in MD8A water, North Fork is classified as a “disadvantaged community” by the State Division of Drinking Water — a designation that allows the North Fork Consolidation Plan to be eligible for “100 percent grant funding” from the state, Gutierrez says.
The new treatment plant will service the school district and MD8A water systems as well as to two other smaller area systems — the Bass Lake Mobile Home Park and John Hovannisian Water System.
Gutierrez estimates that “at full build out,” the new water treatment plant will be able to process up to 20 million gallons of water per year.
CUSD’s independent water system in North Fork currently uses slightly less than 1 million gallons of water a year, Gutierrez adds.
Gutierrez says it’s still “a little early” to put a price tag on the project.
But Sylvia went out on a limb and estimated the new system could cost about $5.5 million. He said the size and scope of the project is “somewhat similar” to upgrades recently completed by Oakhurst-based Hillview Water.
The new water treatment plant will be built on the CUSD campus in North Fork.
“A storage area will be located on the southwest corner [of the property] and the plant will be built just a little below it and a little further west toward the creek,” Sylvia says.
Since 2010, when the state lowered the “allowable” limit of parts per million of arsenic, North Fork’s water systems have been officially “out of compliance.”
“We’ve always had issues with the water in North Fork,” Sylvia says. “We monitor the arsenic levels in our wells weekly.”
CUSD already operates a water treatment plant built by the district 10 years ago to service Minarets High School, Sylvia says.
Two wells currently feed CUSD’s water system in North Fork. During nearly a decade of monitoring, Sylvia says their arsenic levels “have never reached a point where we couldn’t use the water.”
Nonetheless, CUSD has spent about $20,000 a year to supply bottled water to students at Mountain Oaks, Manzanita North Fork School and North Fork Elementary.
Gutierrez says the new treatment plant will use water from North Fork’s two existing “source wells” — located behind the town’s library and next to the Pizza Factory — as well as a third “test” well drilled a number of years ago adjacent to the North Fork School but up to now, never used.
After the plant is operational, the two working wells on the school property will be used for irrigation, according to the plan, which also includes the addition of a 200,000-gallon water storage tank near the North Fork library.
Gutierrez said this week the county is “finishing up environmental clearances and preliminary engineering reports” and is also “in the process of applying for construction funding.”
Final details are still being fine-tuned but Gutierrez says the project should have a “conceptual layout” by July. “We’d like to finish the design work and be able to roll right into construction” — which he estimates will take “between a year and 18 months.”
Gutierrez cautions it could take another year for the North Fork Consolidation Plan to get final approval — and funding — from state regulators. Because it involves a public school district, the plan must also be OK’d by the Division of the State Architect.