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Historic water deal reached
Tuolumne River water sales agreement approved for regional project
tid water plant
Work has already been completed near Fox Grove Fishing Access on the Tuolumne River on giant water collection tubes that will draw up water on the river bed before it is filtered and piped to Ceres, Modesto and Turlock homes. The plant is at least another five years from reality. - photo by Courier file photo

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

The historic decision sets the stage for the cities of Ceres, Turlock and south Modesto to pursue the construction of a surface water treatment plant to use Tuolumne River water 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. Ceres would receive 6,700 acre-feet per year to augment groundwater supplies.

Last week the SRWA met to vote on the terms of the water sales agreement, but Modesto's SRWA representative Councilmember 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 Turlock City Council will look at a likely water rate hike this fall to pay for that facility.

Other member cities are also preparing for water rate increases to help pay for the project, which would be jointly owned by the cities of Ceres, Turlock and Modesto. Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra said he remains hopeful that other jurisdictions like Hughson and Hilmar will get on board to make the plant more affordable for all.
The plant would be similar to one currently operated by the city of Modesto at the Modesto Reservoir east of Waterford through an agreement with Modesto Irrigation District. Vierra said the Modesto plant has resulted in groundwater tables rising in Modesto since most water demand is met through treated lake water.

"We're pretty sure that we will see the same thing and the Turlock Sub Basin and the groundwater will increase and it will be a benefit for not only our farmers but for our residents to have a long-term water supply," said Vierra.

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.

Whatever the cost, said Vierra, it will be a bargain compared to costs in other parts of the state.
"Even though we may have to ask for more money to help fund this, I know our folks in Southern California have offered to buy the water at three to four times what we would be buying the water for.," sais Vierra.

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 will have to undergo an 24- to 36-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.

"No one knows exactly what the total amount of the cost will be because a number of factors play into that," said Vierra.

Costs will depend on the number of jurisdictions joining in, the size of the facility and the filtration technology chosen.

(Jeff Benziger contributed to this report).