As the City of Turlock enters the third year in a five-year water rate increase schedule, the City Council held a special meeting to review the plans made — and potential options — when it comes to securing a reliable source of drinking water.
In December 2017, the City of Turlock adopted a new water rate structure beginning in 2018 and increasing every year for five years to help fund a new surface water treatment plant project with the City of Ceres and maintain and service current groundwater wells.
The new water rate schedule was projected to see a single-family bill at $36 a month for water in 2017 rise to $42 a month starting in March 2018, $49 a month in 2019, $57 in 2020, $67 in 2021 and $79 in 2022. The new rate includes a $25 month service fee for the typical single-family home, which covers the cost of securing the water source and delivering it to the customer.
Currently, 100 percent of the City of Turlock’s drinking water supply comes from groundwater. However, the drinking water supply is declining, contaminant levels are increasing and groundwater quality regulations have become more stringent.
For the past 30 years, the City has been working on securing an alternate source of water — treated surface water from the Tuolumne River. In 2011, the Cities of Turlock and Ceres, as members of the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority (SRWA), started the process of building a plant to deliver treated Tuolumne River water to homes.
Both Ceres and Turlock will blend the new source of water with treated groundwater. Turlock will receive up to 10 mgd while Ceres has a claim of 5 mgd. Construction of the plant was originally estimated at $278 million, with Turlock paying $171.6 million.
Since the original estimates, the project cost has decreased to $204 million with the SRWA receiving a number of grants that total approximately $35 million. Due to the lowered total cost of the project, the City’s water analysts said it is likely that the final year of the rate increase may not be needed.
At the special meeting, the City Council heard a presentation from the City of Modesto on the possibility of obtaining treated surface water from the Modesto Regional Water Treatment Plant. The City of Turlock could either participate as a customer of the MRWTP with the City of Modesto as the water retailer, or as a partner in the MRWTP and therefore assuming future costs for “build-out capacity.”
Turlock City staff recommended against abandoning the SRWA project between the Cities of Turlock and Ceres and seeking a contract with the City of Modesto due to higher total costs and additional time to become operational with the Modesto option.
Former Turlock City Council member Bill DeHart, who worked on the SRWA agreements, called into the special meeting to urge the current Council to stay the course with the current project.
“We are on the cusp of being able to satisfy the immediate need should our wells go down…I would like to encourage the Council at this point to project their favorable consideration to the existing arrangement with SRWA and that we continue that relationship. But never let it be said that I didn’t pass along my gratitude for keeping eyes and ears open to opportunities for saving the ratepayers money,” said DeHart.
Turlock resident Mike Melendes called in to comment and said he felt the City should continue with the SRWA project taking into consideration the amount of money that has already been spent — which is approximately $19.4 million between both Turlock and Ceres.
“I’m super excited that you guys are moving forward on a direction,” said former Turlock Planning Commissioner Nick Hackler.
He went on to say that the talk of partnering with Modesto in a regional partnership may sound good at the onset but would not be in Turlock’s long-term benefit.
“If we ever want to talk economic development, we have to secure two sources of water. And being in control of water is really the key to anything moving forward. Right now it’s not such a big issue because we’ve had a couple of good rain years, but that could disappear real quickly,” said Hackler.
During Council comments, Vice Mayor Andrew Nosrati said that the entire special meeting was politically motivated.
“I think what we have here is an attempt to fulfill a campaign promise that at this current moment is being advertised as an attempt to do your best to make sure that we spend our money as wisely as possible,” said Nosrati.
He went on to read a social media post from Mayor Amy Bublak’s page from her November 2018 campaign where she promises to stop a water rate increase.
Bublak responded to Nosrati saying that him bringing up her campaign post was “inappropriate.”
Council member Gil Esquer said he didn’t see where changing direction at this point would benefit Turlock or the ratepayers.
“My feeling is we need to get this project completed as soon as possible. My recommendation is we continue moving forward in the direction we started,” said Esquer.
Council members Nicole Larson and Becky Arellano both voiced support for the SRWA project.
“This has been a 30-year project. If we abandon something that has been in the works for 30 years and it comes to fruition at this time and we are lucky enough to be able to vote on something that moves Turlock forward in a secure water source — we have not had a secondary water source in Turlock and that has been a problem…Our job here to make sure we have the security for Turlock. In my mind, if you have the opportunity to maintain and own your own structure water — water is like gold in this time,” said Arellano. “Having control over our own destiny and actually having the ability to offer our surrounding towns the option to join in or not is going to be huge.”
The Council voted 5-0 to continue with the SRWA project.
“I will never apologize for standing up for the ratepayers…I promised that I would try and figure out how to do this and I’m always going to keep my word. It is not politically, it is me having a reputation and keeping my word,” said Mayor Bublak.
The SRWA is expected to award a design-build contract to CH2M Hill Engineers, Inc. sometime this month and construction is anticipated to begin in early 2021. - Project completion and operations are expected to begin in June 2023.