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City prepares for water rate hike meeting
Informational meeting to take place Saturday to explain why dramatic rate hike is proposed

Ceres residents are invited to attend a special informational meeting at 1 p.m. this Saturday to give ratepayers an opportunity to ask questions about the proposed increases in water rates and get more information about the Water Rate Study that was recently completed.

The meeting will take place at the Ceres Community Center, at 2701 Fourth Street.

The city of Ceres is proposing a water rate increase to cover the cost of improvements required to utilize surface water, diversifying its water delivery portfolio and ensuring its ability to meet current and future water needs for its customers.

A protest hearing will be held at the Community Center at 6 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 13. Any property owner or a tenant who is a customer may protest the proposed water rate fees and charges increases, and changes to the water rates structure. All protests must be in writing and must be received by the City either in person or by mail by the end of the Nov. 13 public hearing.

"The city is currently totally dependent on ground water and our supply is getting lower over time," said City Manager Toby Wells. "Using surface water would allow the city to deliver more consistent water quality, improve groundwater conditions and allow for the replenishment of groundwater for use during periods of drought."

The cities of Ceres and Turlock have partnered to form the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority (SRWA). In collaboration with the Turlock Irrigation District (TID), the SRWA is planning a Regional Surface Water Supply Project to provide a safe and reliable high quality water supply. The project would include a surface water treatment plant and water transmission lines using water from the Tuolumne River.

"Our primary concern is to ensure that we can continue to deliver a safe, consistent water supply to meet the needs of our residents and businesses now and in the future," said Mayor Chris Vierra.

In September representatives from HF&H Consultants, LLC of Walnut Creek delivered the results of their water rate study. The firm is recommending the city enact a large increase in water connection fees for new homes being constructed.

The proposed rate increased cover the period from Jan. 1, 2018 to 2022.

The increases, if enacted, would result in the average Ceres single-family household water bill climbing from $40.13 per month now to $56.18 on Jan. 1, 2018; to $76.97 on Jan. 1, 2019; to $80.82 on Jan. 1, 2020; to $84.86 on Jan. 1, 2021; and $88.25 on Jan. 1, 2022.

Mayor Vierra commented that the reality of rate hikes is "painful."

Ceres has approximately 12,000 households connected to the city water system. Most single-family residences are serviced through a one-inch diameter connection or smaller.

Currently water rates are based on a basic service charge of $20.23 per month plus a rate of $2 per 1,000 gallons of water used if less than 75,000 gallons are used each month. The current volumetric charge goes to $2.90 per thousand gallons if more than 75,000 gallons is used. Less than two percent of all accounts fall into the second tier of pricing. The average single-family household uses about 10,000 gallons each month.

Much of the rate hike is required to enable the city to pay for its expected $100 million share of cost to build the regional surface water plant. The city is in a partnership with the city of Turlock and Turlock Irrigation District to build the plant at Fox Grove near Hughson and pipe treated water to area homes to be comingled with ground water. City officials insist the river will be a dependable source of water as groundwater quantity and quality has become shaky. The plant is expected to be up and operating by 2022 or 2023.

Rates also must be increased to cover the higher costs of operations and maintenance as well as capital projects to upgrade the system.

John W. Farnkopf, P.E., HF&H's senior vice president, said the city has taken great effort in recent years to address water system deficiencies such as low water pressure in some areas and addressing water quality problems. The last series of increases helped the city pay for installation of water meters on all homes as mandated by the state.

Richard J. Simonson, vice president of HF&H, said capital costs continue to climb, including $10 million for wellhead treatment over the next five years.

To enact the series of water rate increases, the city must conduct the Prop. 218 protest hearing process. A public hearing will be held on Monday, Nov. 27. The rate hike will not be able to occur if more than 50 percent of all households - over about 6,000 households - file written protest, something that rarely happens in a community. Connection fees are not subject to Prop. 218.

With the rate hikes, Simonson said Ceres will be less than some comparable communities and more than others.

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said both cities want to break its 100 percent reliance on groundwater. He said the recent drought has "impacted our groundwater levels as well as water quality changes ... that come from federal and state regulations changing. Those water quality challenges continue to get worse and worse."

Wells said Ceres and Turlock are dealing with the same water issues.