May 07, 2015
By: Willam Miller
Ken Harrington sat in the dark trailer with three other men, keenly watching a video screen above them.
On it, a metal box attached to a hose, immersed in water and illuminated by a lamp, was moving steadily along a dark surface, sucking up a muddy brown substance.
The manager of the Yosemite Spring Park Utility Co. as a youth had wanted to be a marine biologist. Was this scene from under the sea? A Jacques Cousteau moment?
Far from it. The trailer was parked near one of YSPUC’s million-gallon water tanks, and the men were watching a tank diver from Liquid Engineering of Billings, Mont., clean the walls and floor. While the tank was in use. While it was nearly full of water.
When the job was done, a clean tank and cleaner water would be left behind. And this was just the first of all YSPUC’s four big tanks and 7 booster tanks to be diver-cleaned this year.
But hey, there’s a man in my drinking water! That’s right, Harrington said. “And I’m really particular who jumps in my glass of water. They’re not all equal.”
That’s why he went as far as Montana for this company to do the job. The divers use special wet suits and helmets outfitted with cameras, and their every move is monitored via cables in a high-tech trailer next to the tank.
The divers remove accumulated sediment and along the way inspect walls and seams for corrosion, and they can even make minor repairs. “It keeps the tank in service, and nobody’s out of water.”
And that’s Harrington’s mantra — keeping the water flowing to Yosemite Lakes Park’s 2,257 homes around the clock.
It’s a big task, and he has a dozen employees to help do it. But it keeps this friendly, sharp 55-year-old with a trim goatee mustache on his toes and looking out for the next challenge to pop up.
After all, challenges are what he thrives on.
GROWING UP IN THE VALLEY
Harrington’s path to a watery world in the Sierra Nevada foothills ironically started on a poultry ranch.
He was born in San Jose, but his family, with roots in California stretching back into the late 1800s, moved back to the Fresno-Clovis area when he was an infant. Starting in the 1960s, he was an avid soccer player but also worked on his family’s Baron’s Poultry farm.
“As a kid I worked on that ranch, doing a variety of tasks. Grandpa was very good about making sure you had good work ethic.”
His family sold the poultry farm, and his parents moved to Clovis where he graduated from high school in 1978.
“I started going to college down south with a goal of being a marine biologist… I liked to be in the water, and it seemed like an interesting path, but it didn't work out due to stalled school loans and grants.
“I challenged my class and left school, got a job. I’m actually glad it happened. If it had never happened I never would have met my wife, probably the single best thing that ever happened to me.... I wouldn’t have the family I have.”
ROXIE, FAMILY AND KEEPING HEALTHY
He and Roxie have four children — Mandy, Crystal, Jadden, and Ashley (Rockie), and 15 grandchildren. The children and their families all live nearby, spread from Oakhurst to Madera Ranchos.
Of his wife, he said with a chuckle, “You know they talk about opposites, we share the same interests, but she's very good at maintaining focus. I can get tunneled in on something, and tune out everything else around me. She can slap me on the side of the head and say hey, you need to turn your head and look over here....”
He also called her the “best nurse care provider you could ask for.” Before he started with YSPUC, he worked for on the YLP volunteer fire department. He ultimately spent 21 years with that department.
“I had a structure fire that collapsed on me, broke all the ribs on one side, then here I am nursed back… my knees are gone on me, had multiple knee operations, had an accident here at work, did quite a bit of damage. (Roxie) spent the last year nursing me back. I have not been kind to myself that's for sure.”
His wife is now retired, but formerly handled accounts receivable and customer service for YSPUC — what he and many others here call “the water company.” Roxie also was a responding member of the Yosemite Lakes Volunteer Fire Depairtment for 7 years and spent an additional 14 years assisting the department whether it was on scene or with the auxiliary.
Since the late 1970s, his path to YSPUC has taken him through many different jobs — waiter, busboy, warehouseman, electrical work, construction projects. Although his first experience working in YLP was in 1969 helping his father who was working on construction of the Clubhouse.
“I also had a passion for auto body…. I started building a shop, I had this vision I’d build up a shop to turn over to the kids, but they weren't really interested.” A bad economy and ever increasing air quality regulations led him to close the shop.
In 1987, he and his family began renting a Yosemite Lakes house. He discovered the association needed security so he did that work from the late ‘80s to 1993.
THE WATER COMPANY
The income “didn’t pay the bill,” he said, but an injured YSPUC employee gave him an opportunity to move on.
“They asked me if I could fill in for him, so I picked up a shovel and helped ‘em out, kind of found I had an interest in it, and it allowed me to use some of those skills sets from other trades. I started realizing there was a lot of challenge to it, and one of my big things is, I have a need for that challenge.”
The employee didn’t return, and Harrington stayed on as part of a staff of only four.
Until the 1980s, YSPUC was a completely separate entity from YLOA, owned by the subdivision’s developers, he said, but then YLOA got ownership of the water company in a lawsuit in 1987.
“I decided to stay with the water company. I said, if I'm going to do this, I’ll do it all the way, learn how water systems work... I started educating myself on drinking water by taking night classes, and started applying that knowledge here” and his responsibilities increased. All while receiving training and classroom education for firefighting and responding to calls day or night.
For years, the YLOA general manager ran both companies, but as managers came and went, Harrington filled in as YSPUC manager between them. Eventually, in October 1999, he asked the board, “how about just letting me be the manager. They said OK.” And he’s had the job ever since.
A FRAGILE SYSTEM
So how has YLOA’s water system changed since he took over 16 years ago?
Harrington said it’s more fragile: “Changes made by the state on what's called the Safe Drinking Water Act, has been detrimental to some of the original equipment installed, which was never installed to deal with chlorine.
“It was not installed properly and as it gets older, more people moved in, there was more stress on pipes, and you get more failures.
“In ‘93 we had maybe 18-20 repairs a year… now we approach 200 a year, (we’ve gone) from a crew of 4 to 12 to deal with it. (And) new regulations pop up we need to adjust to. It’s a team effort to run this system. I am fortunate that I have a great team that gets in and get the job done no matter what I throw at them.”
YSPUC now has 15 active wells out of “probably 60 to 70 holes punched in the ground here” over the years, he said.
Those wells and how YLOA gets its water is an interesting story in itself, he said, and makes the system unique in California.
When the subdivision was being planned, Madera County required a report on where homes would get their water. The expert called upon was Dr. Ken Schmidt, a leading authority on the hydrogeology of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The science at the time said wells should be relatively shallow — too deep and there’s less water and quality goes down. In other words, don’t drill below 500 feet.
“So I guess as dumb luck would have it, when I first started doing things here, I didn't have that education.... I didn't know this so I started saying you know we already got a hole here, it’s already got water in it, so let’s go deeper for more water, we started hitting more water and the quality deeper was better.” The system’s deepest well is now 1,400 feet.
After four or five of these successes, Harrington happened to meet Schmidt at a conference. Schmidt told him of the work he had done setting up YLOA’s water, and Harrington shared his discovery.
“He stops me, and wants to know more. Come to find out, I’m basically taking his whole study and blowing it out of the water!”
WILL THE WATER RUN OUT?
The wells are meeting YLOA’s needs for now, Harrington said.
“I'm anticipating seeing some drop in their capacity and capability starting this year. because they're deep and water we're collecting is deep.
“That water is coming from glacial melt in the High Sierra snowpack. Depending on what geologist you talk to, it takes anywhere from 3 to 10 years for that water to get from where it fell out of the sky to our wells.
“Once this ice and snow fell 10 years ago, and it finishes working past us, there's not going to be anything behind it because of drought.”
If California’s drought in this area ended this year, and two years later people in the Central Valley were “fat with water, happy, not thinking about the drought, we'll be feeling the effect because of the time delay, between the time snow in the glacier melts down and makes it to us…. we'll feel it eventually.”
Asked if he’s worried YLOA will run out of water, Harrington said, “I think everybody should always be worried about it.”
And not just from drought. What makes YLOA’s supply unique is that it’s deep water, drawing from runoff of glaciers, some of which were thousands of years old.
“In the valley it’s called alluvium, so it's like a big giant sponge,” he said. “You can stick that straw down in that sponge and suck hard enough and get water out of it, but this is not that way. This is all rock, you’ve got to drill a hole and hope you hit a crack in the rock and hope that crack has water coming through it.”
Some water-yielding fractures are less than the thickness of paper. An earthquake or tremor could shut it off for good.
If that happens, he’ll go looking for water in a new well. Where to drill? Using ground-penetrating radar? Lasers?
No, the answer is on the dashboard of his truck — a couple sets of stiff wire: “You see my witching rods up there, I've been using those rods for almost 30 years.”
They work, he insists — not only for finding water but underground utilities and the like.
But Ken Harrington is not sitting around worrying about dry wells. Far from it. He has his witching rods and decades of experience and intuition to keep YLOA water running — after all, he and his wife live here, too.
He’s already begun to modernize and make more efficient this “fragile” system, parts of which are more than 40 years old.
For example, each well location is a little processing plant where both chlorine and a substance called ortho polyphosphate are added to the water before it goes to holding and booster tanks. The latter helps keep the natural iron and manganese in suspension in the water when it mixes with the disinfectant chlorine, so that it doesn’t settle out when you pour it from your faucet.
Now, the water company spends 12 man-hours a day having staff physically check each well location to make sure settings are correct, especially for the chlorine.
But he’s implementing a high-tech improvement called SCADA that monitors all settings continuously and sends reports every three minutes to him so that he can read them on an iPad. With it, he can have his staff spend more time productively, and react more quickly to any problems — helping keep the water moving, and staying safe.
Even while doing this, he’s ramping up an even bigger project — turning the “fragile” water pipeline system into a secure, robust system that will serve residents for generations ahead.
“Quite a lot of it was installed with the wrong material, by people who didn’t know how to install,” he said. “It's not one area of the park that has a problem, it’s all over.
“And it's not getting any better, it will just keep getting worse, and fail more and more. It’s serious. It really is, and it will cost a lot of money to fix, but it doesn't get cheaper.”
That’s why he and General Manager Bob Civello and the YLOA Board of Directors and other managers are imploring residents to attend one of two Town Hall meetings in early May to explain a new Master Plan to deal with these and other challenges ahead.
So what about Ken Harrington the person, the father and grandfather and family man? How does he deal with all these pressures?
“We try to spend time with our kids and grandkids, and my wife and I are avid lovers of history. We enjoy traveling and experiencing that history first hand.”
But for now, the water company boss has to go check on a crew fixing a leak under John Muir Drive. Residents to notify. Barricades to put up. Challenges to meet. Water to keep flowing.
Ken Harrington on:
What YLOA members should know about their water company: Lot of times I think people take water for granted. They turn on the faucet, and don't give it a second thought. There’s a lot that it takes to get it from deep underground, up above ground, into pipeline, into their home, and (along the way) encountering several different processes. We have problems with infrastructure, just like you see all over country, pipelines breaking, things failing because of aged infrastructure. When you throw that on top of all the work we have to do to just to deliver that water in the first place, it becomes a pretty involved task to keep everything flowing.
Customers, don’t let little problems get big:
We appreciate everything that our customers do for us, certainly appreciate their understanding of what we're trying to do. The slightest little problem is helpful (to know about) if they let us know right away, because little problems turn into big problems many times quite rapidly. We don't want anybody to think that if they encounter a problem at 2 a.m. they're bothering anybody. I've got somebody every night on staff, there to take those calls, to keep that a little problem. The on-call phone number is 760-4349.
Be cautious driving around repair crews: They need to help us out by when we're working the road, slowing down and passing with caution because these guys are all people who have got families they want to go home to. Sometimes drivers on our roads are not driving the safest, and we’ve had a couple guys almost get hit before. I don't want any of my crew getting injured like that, they all want to go home to their families. They can help us by being safe as they come through our work zones.
Most challenging part of his job:
Keeping the system up and running. We're by no means a large water system in the state of California, but by the same token, the state of California considers us to be about the most complex water system in the state, and those complexities create a lot of challenges in … delivering that water.
Most rewarding part of his job:
I like challenges… when we find a resolution to that challenge it makes me feel good. We're able to find an answer and a solution for it, do it in a way that’s not only economical for our customers, but is also long lasting. I'm not the guy who always believes the cheapest is best, so I'm willing to do something that costs a little bit more if it has more longevity and provides better service. I thrive on the challenge, and I really like the feeling of accomplishing that.