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Water rates could triple in six years

POSTED November 13, 2009 10:11 p.m.
Members of the Turlock City Council have long backed a proposed surface water treatment plant, but on Tuesday they balked at a potential 300 percent increase in water rates associated with the project.
The $197 million project — a joint venture with Modesto, Ceres, Hughson, and the Turlock Irrigation District — would take water from the Tuolumne River, chlorinate it, and prepare it for human consumption. Turlock’s share would amount to about $85 million, plus $8.5 million a year in ongoing expenses, in exchange for 15 million gallons of water each day.
Paying for this pricey plant, which Municipal Services Director Dan Madden described as the largest capital project in Stanislaus County, could put a toll on consumers.
Today, a single-family home using 22,000 gallons per month will pay, on average, a $25.54 monthly water bill. By the 2014-2015 fiscal year, that will rise to approximately $41.68 due to costs of implementing State-mandated metering, regardless of any new water treatment plants.
Should Turlock proceed with the proposed surface water treatment plant, city projections expect rates to hit $96.97 in the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Water would be two and one-third times more expensive than the baseline projection with the added costs of building the surface water treatment plant.
“I don’t know how you take this and go from $30 to $100 or even $200, and how you expect the ratepayers to absorb that type of rate increase,” said Councilman Kurt Spycher.
The 15 million gallons of water promised to the city each day could theoretically supply 100 percent of Turlock’s current water needs during the winter months, though in a practical sense the city would be unable to move the water from where the pipeline would hit Turlock in the north of the city to all of Turlock’s houses. In the summer, water from the SWTP would account for 40 to 45 percent of the water currently used by the city on a peak day.
“Although the project appears to be very expensive, imagine what it’ll be in 10 years, if it’s even available in 10 years,” Madden said when the project came before the council in November of 2008. “If the water’s lost you can’t go back and get it.
“It’s a prudent decision to make for the future of Turlock,” he continued. “If it is not pursued, changes will need to be made to the General Plan.”
The project has been in planning, to some extent, for almost 20 years. The City of Turlock already pledged $3.6 million for environmental, legal, and design work related to the plant in October of 2005.
Turlock currently obtains all of its drinking water from groundwater wells. However, groundwater levels have fallen from 50 feet below ground in 1994, to more than 70 feet below ground in 2008. Regulatory changes have also altered standards for safe drinking water, further reducing Turlock’s supply.
According to a council synopsis, the aquifer will be unable to sustain the long-term demands placed upon it. The synopsis also describes the project as “more cost effective than an individual agency approach.”
“I think we need to go look at other options,” said Vice Mayor Ted Howze, who went on to describe the surface water treatment plant as “fiscally unobtainable.”
Howze asked Madden to return to the council with cost analyses of alternative drinking water sources, including wastewater reclamation or so-called “toilet to tap” water treatment. Madden expects to provide that information in December or January, at which time the council will decide whether or not to move forward with public workshops on the project.
The other jurisdictions involved in the surface water treatment plant — Modesto, Ceres, and Hughson — have yet to decide if they will remain partners in the project. Should any agency back out, costs may rise for the remaining members, as the group would construct, own, and operate the facility as a joint powers authority.
When the project was first proposed in 2003, TID was to be the driving agency behind all aspects of the treatment plant, selling the treated water. In the current plan, TID would simply act as a supporting partner, wholesaling the untreated water to the partner cities, acting as the “regional stewards of water” that they are, according to Jeff Barton, TID’s assistant general manager of Civil Engineering & Water Operations.
TID doesn’t have much to gain from the project, Barton said, but if the cities want the water then the District is offering.
“We stand ready to help the cities achieve this project if that is their desire,” Barton said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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