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Council postpones water study
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Turlock’s water rates will remain flat – at least for now.

The Turlock City Council was expected to approve hiring a consultant to conduct a water rate study on Tuesday, a move which will likely lead to higher water bills. But that study was postponed at the request of Councilwoman Amy Bublak, who argued that recently-elected Steven Nascimento should have the right to weigh in.

“These are going to be big decisions,” Bublak said. “He can't say anything, he's sitting out there (in the audience). I'd recommend that we wait.”

Council members Forrest White and Bill DeHart agreed with Bublak’s position. Both noted that some pivotal decisions had been delayed until after their inauguration in 2010, so that they might weigh in.

“That’s fine,” said Councilwoman Mary Jackson, who did not earn a second term in the Nov. 6 election.

Any decision on going out to bid for a consultant will now be delayed until after Nascimento is seated in December.

Some revision to Turlock’s water rates is likely unavoidable, as the city's water revenues have fallen below costs following a state-mandated conversion to metered billing in 2009-2010.

Prior to the changeover, residents paid a flat rate of $31 per month, regardless of water usage. Since then, rates dropped to $23 for 21,000 gallons per month, plus additional charges for usage beyond that mark.

 “Three years ago to the day almost, we came to the council to provide info regarding the water fund and the need to adjust the city's metered rate,” said Municipal Services Director Dan Madden.

Turlock projected a decline in revenues of about $965,000 per year due to metered billing, but the true decline has been nearer to $1.5 million annually. That rate increased proposed in 2009 to offset the loss in funding was denied by council, which at the time directed staff to use reserves until the true impacts of the metered rate were known; rates have gone unchanged since July 1, 2008.

Water usage declined between 5 and 6 percent following the switch to metered billing, as consumers sought to minimize their bills, but the decline in revenue has been even sharper – between 12 and 15 percent. In 2011-2012, water usage increased, but revenues declined even further, as the increased usage came under the 22,000 gallon cap.

This fiscal year alone, Turlock’s water fund is expected to lose $780,000. The fund has been operating at a deficit since a meter-based billing system was implemented in 2010.

Additional costs could hit the water fund soon, as Turlock considers participation in the Regional Surface Water Supply Project, a proposed drinking water plant to be built in partnership with Modesto and Ceres, treating Turlock Irrigation District-controlled water from the Tuolumne River near Hughson.

That plant will tally $85 million, plus substantial yearly operating costs. Though some funding would likely come from state and federal grants, water rates would rise to pay for the new facility. Without the plant, Turlock is projected to overdraw its groundwater resources as soon as 2018.

The water rate study was to have included a review of the Regional Surface Water Supply Project, using more firm numbers than were available in 2009.

Should council approve the rate study following Nascimento’s inauguration, the report is expected to take three to four months to create.