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Surface water plant stalled by fee increase fears

POSTED March 26, 2010 11:06 p.m.
Elected officials from across Stanislaus County gathered in Ceres on Tuesday to hash out the issues surrounding a proposed surface water treatment plant 22 years in the making.
The consensus: It’s needed — just as it was when first proposed in 1987 — but the cost is too high for consumers to stomach.
“We can all talk about how great surface water is, but there’s no way we’re going to do it if we’re going to have a hundred dollar a month water bill,” said Anthony Canella, mayor of Ceres.
The $197 million project — a joint venture between Turlock, 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.
Today, a Turlock single-family home using 22,000 gallons per month will pay, on average, a $25.54 monthly water bill. That figure will rise to approximately $41.68 by 2014-2015 regardless, but with the new surface water treatment plant City projections see bills hitting $96.97.
“In this current economic climate, there really isn’t any desire to raise rates on our citizens, and Turlock is taking that situation very seriously,” said Dan Madden, Turlock Municipal Services director. “… In today’s climate that isn’t something that is palatable to I don’t think anyone.”
In Ceres, rates would triple as the city worked to pay its $49 million share of the project.
“Obviously, we think this is a great project,” Canella said, “In 2003, we thought this was a great project. …  But I really can’t see Ceres saying, ‘Let’s spend another $100 a month on water bills.’”
The project calls for TID to supply water through an infiltration gallery — effectively a straw in the river — near the Fox Grove Regional Park off Geer Road. TID is already required to put water down the river to maintain fish habitats, but would be allowed to remove it at that point. Constructing the surface water plant would ensure other municipalities don’t later attempt to claim the water down stream.
Proponents say the treatment plant is needed to ensure both the quality and quantity of water available to local communities. Currently, most Stanislaus County cities — other than Modesto — rely solely on groundwater wells, pumping drinking water from aquifers.
“It’s not an endless supply,” said Nick Pinhey, director of Utility Planning and Projects with the City of Modesto. “In order for it to be sustainable you need to have water going into the ground to replace the water you take out of the wells.”
Increasingly strict state regulations on groundwater contaminants, regulating the allowable amount of arsenic, and a steadily declining water table have reduced the effectiveness of local wells. In the City of Hughson, three of the five city wells are currently inoperable due to elevated arsenic levels.
According to Hughson city staff, drilling a sixth well will cost the city $3 million. The economics of continuing to drill wells make the surface water plant a compelling option, in Hughson’s view.
By using mainly water from the surface plant, relying only on groundwater for peak summer usage, officials hope that the aquifers could be recharged. Water could then be banked in the aquifer for dry years, allowing for conjunctive use between the two water sources.
Despite the positives, cost remains the major hurdle for the treatment plant. Much of the conversation on Wednesday focused around alternative uses — possibly shipping the water to the Modesto Irrigation District treatment plant, which has available capacity to treat water — or locating state and federal funding to offset the hefty price tag.
Should voters approve the $10 billion water bond this November, about $89 million is earmarked for the Stanislaus County region — funds which could go toward the plant. An additional $6.2 billion in funds would also be available in a competitive bidding process.
Proposition 84 grants could also offset the cost, but to be eligible for those — and the water bond funds — an Integrated Regional Water Management Plan would need to be adopted for the area. Currently, Stanislaus County is the only area of the state, save for mountain peaks and Death Valley, without such a plan.
Meeting attendees agreed Wednesday to start work on the plan, but said it could take six to eight months to complete.
Many present, however, were bolstered by the regional plan, which could involve cities from across the county. Regional solutions to local problems are currently being well received by legislators in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
“I’m committed to working regionally with the other mayors in our county, not only on water but also on the other infrastructure needs of this region,” said Turlock Mayor John Lazar. “I also think, as others do, that if we don’t take care of our most valuable resource, water, that others will take it away.”
Lazar was the only Turlock elected official present at Wednesday’s meeting. Other Turlock councilmembers have previously stated a reluctance to sign on to the project until a report from staff, due later this month, providing more information on alternative water sources, such as so-called “toilet to tap” wastewater treatment.
The absence of much of Turlock’s elected leadership drew the ire of one meeting attendee.
“I think Turlock’s issue is there’s an election coming up this year, and they don’t want their rates raised,” said Pam Sweeten, a 2009 TID Division 5 Director candidate. “That’s baloney … we can’t wait and let TID lose water.”
No decisions were made during the informational meeting, but by bringing together representatives from the many different jurisdictions, the project was ushered along to point where decisions might soon be made.
According to Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden, the current construction climate makes this a perfect time to start work on a treatment plan. He said he would expect the actual cost to come in far below engineers’ estimates at present.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to see a better time to get these projects out to bid and see them constructed,” Wasden said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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