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Turlock won’t bail on Ceres & joint surface water plant
Surface water project
Construction has already started on parts of the regional surface water project west of Fox Grove Fishing Access and south of the Tuolumne River.

Ceres’ partner in a planned surface water treatment plant project – the city of Turlock – decided last week to remain with the project.

The Turlock City Council was entertaining thoughts of backing out of the project, which would have left only Ceres undertaking the project to deliver treated Tuolumne River water to homes. Last week the council voted unanimously to proceed with the project.

The two cities form the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority (SRWA) which is expected to award a design-build contract to CH2M Hill Engineers, Inc. this month. Construction is anticipated to begin in early 2021 with operations starting June 2023.

Currently, 100 percent of the drinking water supply in Ceres and Turlock comes from groundwater. However, the drinking water supply is declining, contaminant levels are increasing and groundwater quality regulations have become more stringent.

Ceres City Manager Tom Westbrook was happy to hear Turlock will remain a partner despite the fact that the Ceres City Council was willing to go it alone.

“I’m glad that it ended the way that it did,” said Westbrook. “Turlock and Ceres have been working on this for a long time. A lot of resources have been expended to get to this point. We just know that day after day and year after year the state changes the water quality standards which causes us to have issues sometimes within our water filtration system.”

Had Turlock decided against participation, Westbrook said he would have “hit the pause button to make sure that we could move forward with the project.”

Both Ceres and Turlock will blend the new source of water with treated groundwater. Turlock will receive up to 10 million gallons per day (MGD) while Ceres has a claim of 5 MGD. Construction of the plant was originally estimated at $278 million, with Turlock paying $171.6 million.

Both cities have enacted a series of five-year water rate increases to help pay for the plant which is to be built near Fox Grove Fishing Access west of Geer Road.

Since the original estimates, the project cost has decreased to $204 million with the SRWA receiving a number of grants that total approximately $35 million. Due to the lowered total cost of the project, Turlock’s water analysts said it is likely that the final year of the rate increase may not be needed.

The Turlock City Council held a special meeting to review the plans made — and potential options — when it comes to securing a reliable source of drinking water. The council heard a presentation from the city of Modesto on the possibility of obtaining treated surface water from the Modesto Regional Water Treatment Plant. The City of Turlock could either participate as a customer of the MRWTP with the City of Modesto as the water retailer, or as a partner in the MRWTP and therefore assuming future costs for “build-out capacity.”  Turlock city staff recommended against abandoning the SRWA project with Ceres and against seeking a contract with Modesto due to higher total costs and additional time to become operational.

Former Turlock City Council member Bill DeHart, who worked on the SRWA agreements, urged the council to stay the course with the project.

“We are on the cusp of being able to satisfy the immediate need should our wells go down…I would like to encourage the council at this point to project their favorable consideration to the existing arrangement with SRWA and that we continue that relationship,” said DeHart. “But never let it be said that I didn’t pass along my gratitude for keeping eyes and ears open to opportunities for saving the ratepayers money.”

Turlock resident Mike Melendes urged the city to stay with the project taking into consideration the amount of money that has already been spent — which is approximately $19.4 million between both Turlock and Ceres.

“I’m super excited that you guys are moving forward on a direction,” added former Turlock Planning Commissioner Nick Hackler.

He went on to say that talk of partnering with Modesto would not be in Turlock’s long-term benefit.

“If we ever want to talk economic development, we have to secure two sources of water,” said Hackler. “And being in control of water is really the key to anything moving forward. Right now it’s not such a big issue because we’ve had a couple of good rain years, but that could disappear real quickly.”

Turlock Vice Mayor Andrew Nosrati charged that the special meeting was politically motivated to “fulfill a campaign promise (by Mayor Amy Bublak)… as an attempt to do your best to make sure that we spend our money as wisely as possible.” He then read a social media post from Bublak’s November 2018 campaign where she promised to stop a water rate increase. 

Bublak called Nosrati’s comment was “inappropriate.”

Councilman Gil Esquer said he didn’t see where changing direction at this point would benefit Turlock or the ratepayers.

“My feeling is we need to get this project completed as soon as possible. My recommendation is we continue moving forward in the direction we started,” said Esquer.

Councilmembers Nicole Larson and Becky Arellano also voiced support for the project.

“If you have the opportunity to maintain and own your own structure water — water is like gold in this time,” said Arellano. “Having control over our own destiny and actually having the ability to offer our surrounding towns the option to join in or not is going to be huge.”

Bublak defended her hesitations over the project when she said:  “I will never apologize for standing up for the ratepayers…I promised that I would try and figure out how to do this and I’m always going to keep my word. It is not political. It is me having a reputation and keeping my word.”

Editor Jeff Benziger contributed to this article.