Who are YLPers? Why, all of us who call Yosemite Lakes Park our home. We’re more than an HOA, we are a community of people who love where we live!
More than just a place of majestic mountain views, YLP is people — individuals of all backgrounds and interests. In this series of periodic profiles, we hope to introduce you to many of these folks — to YLOA board members, to managers, to employees, to our valued volunteers and notable neighbors who share our 21 square miles of Sierra foothills. We hope you enjoy learning about these YLPers.
This week it’s Ken Harrington, manager and chief operator of the Yosemite Spring Park Utility Co. His is practically the story of YLP itself. Not only is he a 34-year YLP resident and employee, but an expert on YLP’s water system, one of the most complex in California. AND few know the area’s history as well as Ken. Read and learn about this remarkable man who presides over the daily miracle of keeping healthy water flowing to your homes.
(Interviewed June 23)
Tell us about your early life, where you grew up.
Well, I grew up in the Fresno-Clovis area. I was actually born in San Jose. My father decided to move us over to San Jose because he was chasing a job. And we lived there for about six months. I happened to be born in that six months. Then we came back. I come from a long-rooted history in California. My great-grandparents started the poultry industry in California in the 1800s and worked their way from the Imperial Valley up into the L.A. Basin area and we’re known as the poultry kings down there and then branched out into the Central Valley in late teens and early ‘20s. Pretty much the largest poultry producing ranch in the Central Valley until 1969.
I grew up on a poultry ranch. And it was basically you know you get up in the morning, you do your chores around the ranch, you go to school, you come home, you do your chores around the ranch, you do your homework and then you start your day over. So that’s a kind of learned my work ethic from my grandfather. And it’s just stayed with me.
What did you want to be? And what was the path that you took?
When I was very young I wanted to be a fireman. We were a couple blocks away from a fire station and I used to love to go to the fire station. So back then you’d go to the fire station to get the license for your bicycle. And my license kept falling off my bike and getting lost. So I’d have to go back to the station to get another one. And then they finally told me, you don’t have to lose your license. You can just come by anytime you want. And so I hung out at the fire station.
I actually got to fulfill that dream when I moved here and was on the station here for 21 years. But that that’s what I had wanted to do, you know, as a small child and then when I was in school I was interested in cars and automotive and I started a business doing custom auto body and paint. I was doing mechanic work as well and kept that going.
When I first moved here, I was still doing that work and I was thinking I was building something that I could pass down to my kids, but my kids weren’t interested in it and it was getting tougher to sustain that type of work.
I just kind of got out of it and looked for something that that would not matter what the economy was. (The) Drinking water (business) seemed to be something that wouldn’t matter what the economy is. So I started working here, I actually revived the security program here in the park when I moved here in ‘87 because there was no security, I had had a lot of experience doing that and was able to get the license. So I got the private patrol operations license for the park and revived the security program and did that for about five years. And then they needed some help on the water company. And I went over to temporarily help them and I’m still here.
So initially, I started off by just doing labor — fixing leaks, reading meters, installing meters, doing that type of work.
When I came to YLP, the homeowners’ association had just taken possession of the water company in a lawsuit, two months earlier. The staff that came across with that problem was the staff that had worked for the developer, who was the other half of the lawsuit with the homeowners’ association. So they were adversaries and then all of a sudden they found themselves employed by who they’ve been fighting against. So they were not, you know, they had not made a nice environment for themselves and so they had a lot of animosity.
And so I came to work here, not really realizing that. At first, I was having trouble myself with these guys, not really wanting to go do things. They literally wanted to go mow their lawn and go fishing and do those kind of things while they were on the clock. And that’s just not me.
So, they didn’t want to teach anything to anybody because they were of the mindset that if nobody knows how to do your job, they can never get rid of you because you’re the only one that can do it, right? So I started going to school and learning the job because I wasn’t going to learn anything here from these guys. So if I’m going to do something, I want to do it. Well I want to know the right way and so I started going to school at night for drinking water and started getting in and learning the system.
Those guys quickly started falling off, going away and new hires coming in. And so it was a learn as you go. And I just kept progressing along to where we started hiring a few more staff, you know, new issues, new problems would pop up, and we’d have to address them and started becoming more busy and we hire more people.
I just started progressing up and they eventually asked me if I would just stay full time because I still was a temporary employee and I said, yeah, you know probably a good thing. So then it got to where I was pretty much managing everything out in the field.
They’d hire somebody as a manager and he’d be here for a few months or a year, and then he disappeared and they had asked me to be an interim manager. On the fifth round of that (I said) how about just let me be the manager? So in ‘99, they agreed and let me become the manager.
It doesn’t mean that I still don’t go out in the field and do this work. Because again, we’ve got to wear multiple hats and just roll with the punches. I still do all that maintenance stuff.
Tell us a little bit about your family and how you came to YLP.
Well, we were getting away from the hustle and bustle and everything that’s in town. And even back then, you could see crime rates increasing in Fresno. And I kind of liked the idea of getting into something that had a little more small town feel. My wife (Roxie) on the other hand, really liked the idea of taking an evening, walking over to the grocery store to buy what we were going to have for dinner that night and, you know, and like the neighborhood kind of thing.
So when I saw an ad for a house here in YLP for rent, I had to keep her talking and drive real fast so she didn’t realize how far we were going out of town. We came up in the winter. It had just snowed up here and it was absolutely beautiful. It was in November of ‘87. And of course, spring came and the rattlesnakes came out and she wasn’t thrilled.
Basically she told me after a year, we were going to leave because she couldn’t handle it. But by the time the year was up, she had fallen in love with the place and didn’t want to go back.
What do now you do for YSPUC? And how does it affect everybody who lives here?
Well, we’re a small water company and regardless of the complexities of this system, the people that work there, any of them have to wear multiple hats. You can’t afford staffing that the big municipalities can afford and so you’ve got to do multiple tasks.
The state has labeled ours as one of the most complex water systems in California. Just because of the way it was designed. In the very beginning there were two different engineers. It was an engineering firm that did the first half of the design, then the original developers went bankrupt. When this went up on the auction block, the new owner hired a completely different engineering firm and wouldn’t let them start over. They had to make their designs work with the other engineer company’s designs. There are a lot of complexities, we’re dealing with a lot of elevation change. Because of that, there’s lots of pieces that have to be addressed.
And until now we’ve never had until what I’m putting in now with the SCADA system, we’ve never had any automation to help us with any of that, to see things without physically going out and looking for them.
What would you like people to know about our water distribution system?
The water that we produce is pulled straight out of the ground and into the pipes. In the valley where a lot of people come from, it’s different, it’s like a giant sponge down there…. and it’s run through big filtering plants and all kinds of different technologies to screen out all of those impurities.
Our waters are like the old fresh mountain spring water, it’s coming right out of the fractures in the rock underground and we don’t have that kind of filtration. And so you’re getting a nice pure water, but it does have some mineral content and it varies depending on where you live in the park.
You couple that with an aged system. They started putting this water system in in 1970. So there’s parts of it that are getting pretty old and it wasn’t put in exactly the best way that it could have been. So it has some problems, you know, with leaks and things.
We’re fixing that with the PRP program, replacing the mains, which is being very effective actually, but you’ve got all these 40, 50, 60 years of minerals that coated inside pipes. And so sometimes a pipe will break and it causes a rush of water and it strips them of those minerals. That’s why you get the discolored water. It’s not a health issue. It’s what they call a water quality issue and aesthetic issue.
So the quality of the water is very good. We test every week. We add chlorine to make sure that it’s safe. And we do that as part of requirements of the federal and state government Safe Drinking Water Act.
The system is improving, as we replace the mains and service lines. If you look at the straight numbers, it seems like we’re not really having a reduction in the number of leaks. But what we’re having is a reduction in the number of catastrophic main failures. We’re still having service line leaks and things like that, and some of those are getting worse in some of the older areas. But service line leaks don’t cause nearly the damage or lose nearly the amount of water that a catastrophic main failure does.
What are the some of the challenges that you and the water company face?
There are always challenges. We’re in a long-term drought. We were out of the drought for what, one year, year and a half, and then we’re back into it. Droughts are always a concern because as it gets hotter, it gets drier. People want to use more water to keep their landscape that they’ve devoted so much time and energy and money to have. But if it’s also harder to produce that water.
When it rains, the water that soaks in the ground, that’s referred to as local area recharge. So, if you’ve got a shallow well, let’s say you live outside the park and you’ve got a house and you’ve got your own well, it’s probably only a couple hundred feet deep but that’s getting all its water from the rain local area recharge.
I’m drilling our wells down a thousand, 1,200, 1,400 feet deep and pulling water from way down and what we’re getting is glacial melt. That water has been locked up in glaciers for years. It’s got anywhere from a seven- to 10-year time of travel from the time it melts out of the bottom of that glacier and soaks in the ground. In the high country it gets in the fractures and works its way down here.
So we don’t see effects of drought immediately, other than more people using the water and us having to pump more water. Our effects from a drought will show up much later. We could actually be out of the drought for a couple of years when we start seeing effects from it because of that time of travel issue. So I’ve always got to kind of look ahead at what may come down the road.
And — there’s always a contaminant that can change our operation. I had a well running for 10 years that had no uranium, never a trace. All it takes is an earthquake someplace to shift the underground fractures and change the course of the water. And it can take the water away from a well, it can add different water to the path to our well. And I think that’s what happened because all of a sudden we had uranium, that was off the charts and I had to shut the well down and I had it offline.
I was trying to figure out a way to deal with it for about 11 years and then all of a sudden the uranium went away. It could very easily have been because of earthquake activity, but that’s all it takes is a contaminant to get in.
We had a gas station tank leak fuel that got into our water. And two and a half million dollars worth of expense to try and get that out of the drinking water.
Tell us about this new SCADA system you’re installing. How will it help?
SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. Basically, it’s remote control of all the systems. I can actually bring up my phone on a screen and look at all the sites I have installed right now. I can see them on that screen. I can see what they’re doing. I can see if they’re running or they’re off.
I can set alarms. So that if we have a main break, let’s say we have a main break at 2 a.m. The way we (used to) find out, is somebody gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. They flush the toilet and there’s no water. So then they call and say, “I don’t have any water.” It may have been running for four or five hours and nobody knows because it’s in the middle of the night.
In this case, I can set a flow rate alarm, so if something breaks like that it hits a high flow rate and it sends out an alarm to all of our phones and wakes us up. And so now we can see we got a problem that we get out there and we find it, right? We find out quick and I can set alarms on hundreds of different things. We’ve been taking advantage of that for a while now.
(Ken first started to use SCADA on a few wells as early as 2015, and then expanded it to the rest of the YSPUC system when the YLOA Board of Directors approved funding the expansion.)
I’m hoping to have everything in and fully automated by the beginning to middle of August.
Why are valves and hydrants sometimes opened and so much water released?
We get these little power glitches and power failures around here and sometimes it may just be momentary. It shuts all of our equipment off and the problem is, is we can’t just let them automatically just turn back on. When you first start the well, even if it just shut off for a moment, you have to pump it to the ground because It can stir up this discoloration iron and manganese, that’s down in the well itself. In some of these wells, you may have to pump it to the ground for two or three hours before you can put it back in.
And we’ve got to drive across, you know, this and entire six hundred acres here, getting to everything and restarting it and then driving back around and putting things in when they’re ready. And all of that is very labor intensive. So with this new (SCADA) system, it’ll be able to do all of that automatically. It’ll let us know that something went off and it’ll be able to start itself to the ground first under a set amount of time because we know about how long it takes to run that way. It’ll open and close the valves. Send the water to the open.
Right now, in the summertime it takes anywhere from eight to 10 hours a day for a person to go through and just operate the system, check every well and tune things in and do what they got to do.
When we get done with this system, the data is already going to be collected. They can come and look at these screens in the office, see where everything is. We even have sensors that tell them if they need to go fill chemicals at the chemical drums.
VIDEO of divers cleaning one of the YSPUC tanks in November 2019
Tell me about your employees and how important it is to have a good staff and just what they do they need?
I don’t think people realize the amount of work that every day goes into this water system to keep the water flowing and to fix all the stuff that needs to be fixed, you know, and the breaks and the leaks. And these guys, they work hard. None of this work is easy. It’s all very labor-intensive. It’s all very hard work and it doesn’t matter if it’s, you know, 20 degrees outside or 110 out here. We’ve got to be out there in it and working it.
And we’re out in the middle of the street, you know? And there’s times where people seem to think that we’re just in their way and it can be dangerous out there and I’ve nearly been hit a few times.
How many do you have in your staff?
I’m very understaffed right now. I’ve only got about five of us right now and you normally would have about 11 so I’m less than 50% and so that just means that we all have to do twice as much work because just because we don’t have the staff. But it doesn’t mean that the work stops being there.
(Hiring and training is another factor — pipeline workers require special skills and certifications.)
I mean we’ve got to have certifications and license and you know, it takes time to get that. And so there’s a lot of difficulty in finding people that either have certification or have the desire to become certified and then to try and keep them here. We’re a small system and we can only offer so much and unfortunately, we end up losing good, certified people to municipalities and things (where) people that have larger bank accounts can pay more.
Do you anticipate any water use restrictions coming up?
Well, that’s always a possibility. We (ask people) to keep in the back of their mind that whenever it gets real hot, these heavy triple-digit days. It’s harder and harder to keep this water available. People tend to use a lot more water when it gets real hot and I need them to think the opposite. When it gets real hot, mellow out on the water a little bit, turn the faucets down.
And the biggest problem is when the power goes out, people seem to get bored because now they can’t be in their house because the air conditioners aren’t working and the TV’s not working. So, they want to go outside and wash their car, but I don’t have the power to produce the water. So now we’re just taking up storage and using that to wash the car, wash down the sidewalk or, you know, playing on the slippery slide, the hose and I get it. It’s hot. but if their power is not on, our power’s not on and we’re not producing any water.
in July and August, those are the biggest months out of the year and we’re delivering anywhere from 40 to 45 million gallons of water a month in those two months. Now, if you think if all of our storage tanks were full. That’s three million gallons of water, and I’m burning through 40 million in a month. So it doesn’t take a lot of math, to figure out how fast those tanks can drain out.
So I need people just to remember, we’re a small utility, we have a limited amount of capability and a lot of that’s dictated by how much water is underground. Just don’t think of it as an infinite resource. It is not. It’s very finite. The amount of drinking water on this planet is very small and most of it’s locked up in glaciers and the rest of the water is undrinkable. It’s polluted or salt. And, you know, it’s pretty to look at and play on with a boat but you can’t drink it. And so we need to keep that in mind.
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