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Tuolumne River water sales agreement approved for regional project
Tuolumne River pic
The Stanislaus Regional Water Authority's agreement with the Turlock Irrigation District will see surface water from the Tuolumne River treated for domestic use, reducing local cities' dependence on groundwater basins. - photo by Photo Contributed

A regional solution to the need for drinking water is one step closer to reality as the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority voted Thursday morning to accept a water sales agreement with the Turlock Irrigation District.

The historic decision will allow for the cities of Turlock, Ceres and South Modesto to use surface water from the Tuolumne River for domestic use, reducing their dependence on groundwater basins.

“Regional needs call for regional solutions,” said Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth. “This deal is a true example of local cooperation resulting in real progress, for all of us.”

TID released a statement following the vote, saying the district is pleased with the action taken by the SRWA Board.

"This is an exciting time to be moving forward with this needed project that will benefit the region on a number of levels. This agreement is a significant achievement that demonstrates TID and SRWA’s collective resolve to respond to regional needs with regional solutions," reads the statement.

The core of the agreement allows TID to transfer surface water from the Tuolumne River. In turn, the cities will provide “offset water” to TID during dry or “less than normal” years. The offset water, which would be composed of a blend of recycled and non-drinkable well water, will serve to balance the reduced river water available to irrigators as a result of the transfer.

The 50-year agreement will provide up to 30,000 acre feet of transfer water to the SWRA annually and will be priced at TID’s Tier 4 Irrigation Rate of $20 per acre-foot.

Last week the SRWA met to vote on the terms of the water sales agreement, but Modesto’s SRWA representative Council member Bill Zoslocki vocalized concerns in one area of the contract’s wording regarding the Environmental Impact Report. Fearing that the language, which permitted TID to protest elements of future recycled water sales down the road, Zoslocki’s dissent thwarted approval. That specific language was removed from the updated water sales agreement.

This most recent concession comes after nearly 30 years of negotiations.

“This agreement is an excellent example of agencies crossing over institutional boundaries to show their determination to solve current and anticipated problems without state intervention,” said Soiseth. “It shows state regulators that the Central Valley is self-motivated to take action, even in this historic drought, to solve our current water crisis.”

According to Soiseth, "all options are on the table" when it comes to funding the estimated $151 to $200 million project — including water rate hikes.

"The Council will look at the rates this fall and the impact locally it will take to pay for that facility," Soiseth said.

Other member cities are also preparing for water rate increases to help pay for the project.

Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra, long a proponent of securing the water while it's still available, said the rate hikes to pay for the plant will not be popular.

"People may hate me for this ... but I hope 50 years from now I hope they'll say ‘I am glad that guy had the foresight to get that water.' When faced with not having water — it's pretty painful for people right now — for me it's a really big deal to have this agreement. I've been pounding my head for four or five years," Vierra said.

The surface water treatment plant and delivery system could be five years away or longer. TID must go through the bureaucratic process at the state, which could take a year. The joint powers authority would have to undergo an 18- to 24-month environmental review process. The cities will have to seek approval from residents, under Prop. 218, to raise water rates in order to issue construction bonds. Then the JPA would be in a position to hire an engineering firm to draw up plans. Construction could take up to two years.