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Surface water plant will mean higher water rates
Fox Grove facility likely more than five years from reality
Water from the Tuolumne River near Fox Grove could be filtered and piped to Ceres, Modesto and Turlock homes in about five years or longer. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

After 26 years of negotiations, Turlock Irrigation District has agreed to sell treated Tuolumne River water to the cities of Ceres, Modesto and Turlock.

If all goes as planned, the 50-year agreement will mean less dependence on groundwater.

It also will mean an increase in monthly water rates.

Under the Stanislaus Regional Water Project (SRWA), the plan calls for the building of a water treatment plant near Fox Grove northeast of Hughson and piping the water to the three jurisdictions. Ceres would accept up to six million gallons per day, or 13,000 acre-feet per year.

In 2013 the city approved six years' worth of water service rate increases designed to raise cash to cover improvements to an aging water system. Under those rate hikes, the average Ceres household pays $39.93 for 2014-15, $44.18 in 2015-16, $47.24 in 2016-17 and $50.43 in 2017-18. Those hikes did not, however, take into consideration what must be set aside for the city to participate in the $151 million regional surface water project, said Gerry Nakano of West Yost Associates, which was commissioned by the city to produce the water study.

When the plant goes on line, Ceres and other cities plan to blend both treated river water with well water for home use. Ceres will be able to take six million gallons per day but currently uses 12 million per day. In 2012, Nakano said Ceres households may be impacted an additional $8 to $16 per month once the surface water project goes on line.

Mayor Chris Vierra said what those rates will actually be will depend on a variety of factors. There is the largest issue of the size and cost of the plant. Vierra said the three cities will be trying to get other jurisdictions - like Hughson, Keyes and Hilmar - to join in because the economies of scale would result in lower costs. Now is the time for them to get onboard since capacity can't be added once the plant is built, said Vierra.

Other agencies participating would also drive down costs.

Under the arrangement, the cities would jointly own and operate the plant and buy raw water from TID for $30 per acre-feet.

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 JPA 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.

"I'd say five years is relatively conservative," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells.

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."

A big unknown is the duration of the current drought and how that could impact existing water rates. Wells said significant conservation efforts in Ceres could result in higher water rates. If residents continue to conserve - and they are being asked to - that will result in lower revenues while operational costs are still relatively the same. Rates would have to be increased to make up for the shortfalls.

"Right now we are good and we're hoping we won't have to," said Wells. "It will all depend on whether this drought ends or not."

Vierra said Ceres really has no option but to go with the regional plant.

"The state will continue to ratchet up treatment of groundwater," said Vierra.