Two promising developments emerged Tuesday from the Modesto Irrigation District, which has spent most of the past year embroiled in controversies.
First is a tentative settlement with Black & Veatch, the firm that designed and was supposed to oversee construction of the expansion of the water treatment plant. There have been major design and construction problems at the plant that the MID has said could cost $30 million on top of the $63 million original price tag.
We don't know any details of the settlement, which must be approved by the judge in the federal court where the lawsuit was filed.
It is reassuring that Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said the settlement won't cost anything for the MID or the city of Modesto. While the MID is building the plant and will own it, the city will buy all the treated water from it for households and businesses in Modesto and the other communities served by the city water supply.
We believe that the terms of this settlement should be made public by the court or by one of the two public entities involved.
It's understandable that Black & Veatch would prefer not to release any details that might amount to an acknowledgment that it made serious mistakes. Competition is tough among the big firms like this, and Black & Veatch is among the biggest. Engineering News-Record put it 14th in the world on a list of the top 500 design firms and 41st largest on its list of the top 400 construction firms worldwide. However, the MID and city have a bigger responsibility to their constituents than to Black & Veatch.
Meanwhile, the MID and city are still in settlement talks with the main contractor, Western Summit Constructors of Denver, and two subcontractors. Whatever the outcome there, as well, we believe the citizens deserve a full accounting of monetary settlement and of legal costs.
The construction delays have not created serious problems so far for the city. The demand for water is not as high as expected when this project was started, for several reasons: the slowdown in new homes, business cutbacks and reduced water use as Modestans go to meters. With the plant now scheduled for completion in 2014-15, if the economy turns around, we anticipate the water surely will be needed by that time.
The second positive development is that the MID board has agreed to use an advisory committee to help it assess its need for water system improvements and how they should be paid for.
The makeup of the committee will be crucial, but we think that the MID's elected directors will recognize the need for people who can start a fresh conversation on this subject, regardless of their positions on the abandoned plan to sell water to San Francisco. Of course the meetings of the advisory committee, once formed, should be fully open to the public.
Using an advisory committee will slow down process but will give it credibility that the previous process lacked. Ultimately, the decisions rest with the five directors, three of whose terms expire in 2013. The stage is already set for that to be a significant election.