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Councilman votes to delay surface water project years in the making
tid water plant
The city of Ceres share of the surface water plant at Fox Grove will come to an estimated $100 million. Part of the upcoming water rate hikes will help the city cover those expenses. This photo was taken years ago when the filtration galley was being installed under the river bed. - photo by Courier file photo

The city of Ceres has been working on a surface water project for close since 1987 to insure Ceres has a dependable source of drinking that meets water quality standards. But when actions of a routine nature came before the council last week to continue with the project, Councilman Channce Condit voted no.

The cities of Ceres and Turlock formed the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority which is in the process of hiring a design-build consultant to oversee the project to build the facility along the Tuolumne River west of the Fox Grove Fishing Access. The water will be drawn from the river, filtered and piped to both Turlock and to Ceres. Plans call for the water to be stored in a large aboveground water storage tank. The surface water will then be comingled with groundwater for use throughout the system.

The agenda item before the council on Tuesday evening, May 28 was for approval of a water facilities easement and a temporary construction easement to allow the SRWA to work on city property at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park.

Condit, a newcomer to the council, asked questions about the project, including queries about how much water rates have been increased to support the project. City Manager Toby Wells explained that past councils approved five years’ worth of rate increases – the first in 2018 and the second in 2019 – to be able to pay back the financing for the project. Wells explained that with grant funding, the city hopes to not implement all of the remaining increases.

The plant is expected to go into operation in the fall of 2022.

Condit asked why the project was set to occur in a four-year time frame “and not an eight-year or 12-year project. What’s the rush?” Wells explained that the project is never going to be any cheaper than now and that construction being stretched out would add to costs due to inflation and other factors.

“The overall time frame is a cost conscious effort to minimize the expenditures,” said Wells.

He explained that the money for the project will be coming from a loan from the State Revolving Fund at a low interest rate.

Actual final costs for the project will not be solidified until September. Condit suggested waiting until then granting the easements. Wells explained why the council shouldn’t wait, saying “We have to have that land in hand before SRF will finalize our loan application. So if we don’t have this land it delays our application for the SRF funds which delays when we get money returned to us and ultimately costs us more because in September we go to award the project and have to have the funding in place.”

Condit said he was hesitant in “getting too far down the rabbit hole” where there wouldn’t be “any return.” But Wells explained that the council was just approving an easement on city land.

Condit then asked what happens if Turlock pulls out of the project to which he was told the plant would be redesigned smaller and less expensive. Currently the plant is designed to pull 15 million gallons per day out of the river with 10 million going to Turlock and 5 million to Ceres.

Condit was then the lone member to reject the easements.

Last year Mayor Chris Vierra – who is on the SRWA board – said with or without Turlock, Ceres wants and needs drinking water from the Tuolumne River.

Vierra, who is no fan of the policy of state lawmakers, said he could foresee the state banning cities from drilling new wells or ratchet down on water standards that many cities won’t be able to meet. He said with the Tuolumne River yielding better water quality than what’s pumped from the underground aquifers, the surface water plant will be a lifesaver in the future.

“It’s going to be cheaper to treat surface water than it is ground water,” said Vierra.

The origins of the Surface Water Supply Project began in 1987 when TID initiated discussions with the SRWA regarding a drinking water project that would help offset deteriorating groundwater quality and supplement groundwater supplies by providing a portion of TID’s Tuolumne River surface water.

Many residents of Ceres and Turlock protested their respective increase in water rates adopted in 2017. Construction of the plant is expected to cost approximately $288 million, with Turlock paying $182 million and Ceres $100 million. To cover expenses, both cities had to raise water rates.