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Council receives status of surface water project
SRWA plant building
Insulated wall paneling was installed last month on the Raw Water Pump Station building at the regional surface water project near Fox Grove Fishing Access. The plant will be delivering treated river water to Ceres homes by August.

Starting in August, water coming from Ceres taps will be a combination of what is pumped from the ground and what is pumped and filtered from the Tuolumne River.

The completion of the surface water project northeast of Hughson will a dependable and clean source of water into the future, Robert Granberg, general manager of the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority (SRWA), told the Ceres City Council last week.

“We’re coming to the end of the road here on this long, many decades project that’s been in the works,” said Granberg.

The new plant was deemed a necessity for the cities of Ceres and Turlock given growing concerns about groundwater meeting regulatory requirements; and concerns that underground aquifers will continue to be over-drafted as Valley population grows.

Both cities formed a joint powers authority with Turlock Irrigation District in 2011 to build and operate the plant near Fox Grove. Modesto was originally part of the JPA but dropped out after deciding to expand its existing surface water treatment plant at the Modesto Reservoir. 

Granberg noted that besides delivering good and clean water from the river, the plant offers some environmental benefits. The added flow released by the dam for the water plant will make for colder water temperatures which in turn help fish habitat along the 26-mile stretch from Don Pedro to Hughson. Using less groundwater will mean faster recharge of aquifers beneath Ceres and Turlock.

An additional plus, he explained, is that having a second water source will allow cities to shut down and repair wells as need arises. Maintaining groundwater as a source will provide an important backup if TID or the state dictates water curtailment during spells of drought.

Ceres currently relies on 14 wells to extract water that undergoes expensive treatment. The city will still need to use groundwater conjunctively with river water, especially in the summer when peak use hits around 11 million gallons per day since the plant will only initially supply up to five million gallons to the Ceres system. An estimated 75 percent of the water consumed in winter time will be treated river water.

Granberg noted that the galleys installed in the river bed over a decade ago west of the Geer Road bridge with pipelines going to the plant east of Fox Grove Fishing Access, were tested and function as intended. One pipeline was extended five miles to Ceres down Hatch Road to the 2 million gallon tank constructed at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park; while another line was constructed to pipe water to Turlock.

After three years of extensive environmental studies, engineering and the securing of water rights, construction of the plant began in January 2021. It is now 83 percent complete.

“I’m happy to say that in six to seven months from now the water will be flowing to the cities,” said Granberg.

In its first phase, the plant is being sized to process 15 million gallons of water per day for both cities, with Ceres taking five million gallons and the balance going to Turlock. A second phase expansion of the plant will give Ceres the capacity to receive up to 15 million gallons per day.

To pay for the $195 million plant, the city councils of both Ceres and Turlock enacted a series of water rate increases. Granberg said that the JPA borrowed $184.9 million for the construction after receiving $35 million in grant funds. Borrowing from the State Revolving Fund at 1.2 percent interest rate has saved the project $100 million it would have incurred through 4 percent interest rate municipal bond financing.

Based on water needs of their populations, Ceres will pay roughly a third of the cost, or $61.6 million, while Turlock is responsible for two-thirds, or $123.3 million.

The annual debt service for Ceres is $2.5 million over 30 years and approximately $1.7 million for operations and maintenance depending on staff, electrical and chemical costs.

Granberg termed the project has been perhaps the most challenging in his engineering career. For example, in order to dig a giant hole next to the river, the ground had to be frozen – even through hot summer months – to prevent water seepage and caving the walls in.

Granberg was asked if residents will be able to discern a difference in water quality and said there should be an improvement since treated water from the river is “pleasant to taste” and has less hard minerals.

Vice Mayor Bret Silveira shared that when he first became a city representative to the SRWA JPA board he had concerns about the project being viable given talk about water curtailments at Don Pedro Dam during drought. He learned that the amount taken out of the river would be similar to “taking a thimble out of a swimming pool every day, so it’s almost immeasurable compared to what goes down that river, so I felt a lot better with that.”

He also expressed his pleasure that the immense project is under budget and on time.