Cities Seek Water Purchase Agreement with the Turlock Irrigation District

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A proposed multimillion dollar surface water treatment plant, which would treat Tuolumne River water to create drinking water for Turlock, Ceres, and South Modesto, is rapidly nearing reality.

But first, the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority needs to secure a long-term water purchase agreement with the Turlock Irrigation District, which would provide the water to be treated.

The SRWA and TID met during a special workshop Tuesday afternoon to discuss potential terms of the sale, which the SRWA hopes will allow the purchase of water at irrigation customer rates and last for 50 years.

The $150 million project would undoubtedly raise Turlockers' water rates. By 2023, average households would pay $96.25 monthly, high usage households $163.10, and high usage commercial users $1,278.40, according to an August study.

But the project would provide a nearly-guaranteed source of water for the future, something in high demand given increasing strains on the cities' groundwater-based drinking water system.

“We can't fallow a neighborhood if water is short,” said Steve Stroud, Interim SRWA General Manager.

The cities currently pump groundwater to supply 100 percent of drinking water needs.

But due to overuse, largely by farmers in eastern Stanislaus County, the groundwater basin is declining. The City of Turlock recently drilled a new well which has never been put into service, as quality levels failed to meet increasingly-stringent state mandates.

The cities still expect to provide some of their drinking water via wells, drilling additional wells in the years to come.

Project Dates Back to Late 80s

The surface water treatment plant has been a long-term desire for both local cities and the district. Talks date back 26 years to 1987, when TID Board of Directors chairman Micheal Frantz was just 10 years old.

“We both agree to do something, but we never get to the finish line,” said Chris Vierra, Mayor of Ceres.

The project has changed numerous times since its 1987 inception. Initially, smaller communities like Hughson, Keyes, Denair, and Hilmar were set to participate. But those cities dropped out in 1995, when they decided they could not shoulder the high costs associated with the development.

TID installed an infiltration gallery near the Fox Grove fishing access, near where Geer Road crosses the Tuolumne River, in 2001. That infiltration gallery will allow the district to pull out water for the proposed plant to process.

In 2003 it seemed as if the project was near construction, as TID proposed to finance, build and operate the plant, and conducted needed environmental work. But cities balked at the costs in 2008, and the project went back on the shelf.

The project resumed in 2011, when Turlock, Modesto, and Ceres formed a new Joint Powers Authority tasked with developing a surface water treatment plant built and operated by the cities.

But before the cities can bond for the plant's estimated $150 million construction cost, they need a long-term water purchase agreement. The SRWA hopes to negotiate a 50-year agreement to purchase between 30,000 and 41,480 acre-feet of water each year.

At initial build-out, in approximately 2020, the plant would provide the three municipalities with 30,000 acre-feet of water each year – enough to supply about 49 percent of the cities' drinking water. By 2050, that figure is expected to grow to 41,480 acre-feet, accounting for 53 percent of local drinking water.

The quantity of water concerned Luke Miller, a Hilmar farmer. He said that in dry years, such as this one, the district can't afford to give away 2,000 acre-feet of water, let alone 30,000 acre-feet.

“It's a big number, and we understand that water's short and water's precious,” Frantz said.

But through conjunctive use, the agreement could improve the state of the groundwater basin. The water which currently flows down the river would instead be put into the ground locally as residents water their lawns, refilling the basin over time and “banking” groundwater for use in dry years.

SRWA Wants Equal Treatment to Irrigation Customers

Parity is an oft-recurring word for the SRWA. The cities want to be subject to the same requirements as the district's irrigation customers.

That means should the state or federal governments reduce TID's total available water, the cities would take the same cut. And less water may be made available to cities in dry years.

But in exchange, the cities hope to pay the same rate as irrigation customers – roughly $20 per acre-foot. For comparison, the Modesto Irrigation District's abandoned plan to sell water to San Francisco would have charged $700 per acre-foot.

“If we were talking guaranteed water, we wouldn't be talking 20 bucks (an acre-foot),” Stroud said. “We'd be talking hundreds of dollars.”

Costs to the cities could rise over time, however, as the rate charged to TID growers increases. Some estimate that the true district cost to deliver water may be nearer to $70 per acre-foot, a sizable increase over the $20 per acre-foot figure.

“Is it good? No,” Stroud said. “But 10 years from now, it may be a bargain.”

The cities have few other options to provide drinking water to local residents. The only other realistic plan would treat water at the head of new city wells that fail to meet state standards, a process than can cost $300 per acre-foot.
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TID Concerned About Water Quantity, Seeks Mitigation Measures

Despite the SRWA's willingness to adjust with the district's water supply, the initial 30,000 acre-feet figure remained hard for TID directors to swallow.

"Our system is pretty tight right now,” said TID Director Rob Santos. “But I think if we can mitigate for that loss, we can make it a win-win situation.”

TID wants the SRWA to pay for some mitigation measures, helping the district gain additional water to offset the the water it would be selling. Those mitigation measures could range from from $25 million pump-back systems, which recover water which would otherwise “spill” from district canals into the river, to funding water-efficiency measures for farmers. The mitigation measures could also include using city groundwater pumps to fill TID canals in dry years.

Santos also expressed concern with a City of Turlock plan to sell its treated wastewater to the Del Puerto Water District. That treated wastewater would be used as irrigation water on the Westside of Stanislaus County. The plan is set to raise $3 million for the city over five years, should it be approved by the state.

But that wastewater, which would consist in large part of purchased TID surface water, should stay in the Turlock groundwater basin, Santos said. He said the water, amounting to 30,000 acre-feet annually, should be sold to TID.

“There is a chance this could be a wash,” said TID Director Charles Fernandes.

There are hurdles to making that work, however. Turlock sits near the bottom of the TID system, making the water useless to the majority of district customers without expensive pumping systems.

And that 30,000 acre-feet of water is generated over the course of a year – not just during irrigation season. Tou Her, TID Assistant General Manager of Water Resources, noted that the district would only need the water during dry years as well, making the project's cost potentially unreasonable given the limited need.

The SRWA will come back to the district with a list of potential mitigation measures and the water they could generate on Dec. 4. That doesn't leave much time for the agreement to be completed by Dec. 31, as the SRWA had hoped.

But after 26 years of waiting, the SRWA wants to know soon whether or not this long-discussed project will come to fruition.

“Let's just do it or don't do it. Let us know. Then we'll have to do what we have to do,” Turlock City Councilman Forrest White said.

Despite the myriad obstacles, TID Directors were generally positive about the project and its potential impacts on the region.

“I see that this project is good for our community, which is good for TID,” Frantz said.

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