The joint Ceres-Turlock regional surface water project advanced another step toward construction with Monday’s Ceres City Council 4-1 vote.
Only one member of the council, Channce Condit, voted against the third phase of the project design and construction funding agreement.
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. 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 two cities.
Condit raised eyebrows when he expressed agreement with the “concept of this project and believe that it’s absolutely necessary” but voting against it on the basis of “the practicality and fairness of the ratepayers.” He then asked about water rights of the Turlock Irrigation District. City Manager Toby Wells said negotiations continue over the water rights. Condit was also told there have been no protests against TID transferring water rights to the city of Ceres and Turlock, which would jointly operate the plant.
Condit asked again about project financing – like he did back in June – and was again told by Wells that past councils approved five years’ worth of rate increases – the first in 2018 and the second in 2019 – to pay back the loan to finance the project. Wells also explained that the bids from the design-build team came in below the estimates by $80 million cheaper than what was included in the rate model. Wells said rates are not expected to increase past the five-year series of rate hikes.
“Though I support the concept of this project, my fear is this could turn into a boondoggle,” said Condit.
Mayor Chris Vierra, a longtime advocate of the project for a guaranteed source of quality drinking water for decades, came back at Condit: “I’m not sure what you mean by boondoggle.
“I can tell you this: if this project does not go through we will pay more money as ratepayers to pump water from the ground as we currently do than if we have the surface water project,” said Vierra. “So I am hopeful that we work through the few issues we have remaining and bring this project online.”
Vierra told Condit that the project has bids from reputable firms and the project is on the verge of becoming reality, “so I do take offense to your calling it a boondoggle project; I’ve been involved in it for nearly 10 years and I would not call it anything but that.”
Condit then threw out innuendo that someone in Turlock speculated “that there was an elected official that could possibly benefit. There’s none here tonight?”
An irritated Mayor Vierra answered, “I’m not aware of anybody on this council” before polling members if they were benefiting financially from it. All members said no, to which Condit said he just wanted it “on the record.”
“I’m not sure where that came from, but okay,” retorted Vierra.
In July Condit cast the lone vote against an aspect of the project by voting against 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 where a water storage tank is to be constructed.
Vierra said there is only one member of the Turlock City Council “that is not 100 percent supportive; the rest of the council are.”
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.
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.