MODESTO — Though it's not officially declared, we're in a drought, with less than a quarter of the normal Sierra snowpack. Even farmers in the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts normally water wealthy will get less for irrigation this year. Those on the West Side and in the south valley are getting as little as 20 percent of their full allocations.
Isn't there anything positive to report about water? Yes.
The largest public works project in Modesto history is under way at the city's sewer treatment facility west of town. When completed in 2016, the plant will clean waste water so it can be released directly into the San Joaquin River, complying with stricter standards mandated by the state water board.
Even more important: The water from this facility will be treated and disinfected to where it can be used and sold as irrigation water for 17,000 to 20,000 acres of West Side farmland. In other words, Modesto's waste water is going to be recycled.
The Del Puerto Water District, which has been hard-hit by water shortages in recent years, is a partner in this plan, launched in 2010. The cities of Turlock and Ceres and Stanislaus County also are partners in the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program.
Federal and state governments are promoting regional cooperation and water reuse projects, so the partnership hopes for funding to help pay for the pipelines to move the water across the river for use on orchards.
Our county is not alone in looking for ways to make the best use of a limited water supply. Water agencies up and down the state are studying and pursuing ways to conserve, transfer and reuse water.
Recycled water projects once unthinkable as a public relations nightmare have gone from being the exception to the expected.
The state allows disinfected tertiary recycled water, such as what Modesto's plant someday will produce, to be used on virtually all food crops, plus in some recreation uses such as playground irrigation and fish hatcheries.
We won't attempt to describe the science and engineering of this project. To learn more, go to the partnership's website: www.nvr-recycledwater.org.
Engineers on this project are keenly aware of the problems at the unrelated surface water treatment plant across the county at Modesto Reservoir. To reduce the chances of that kind of fiasco, the city used one firm to design the plant, another to build it and yet another to manage and oversee construction. A city senior engineer is the liaison.
About 25 of the 100 workers on the project are from the Modesto area, so it's been only a slight boon in direct jobs. But the 26,000 cubic yards of concrete is coming from local firms, according to Brian Deschaine, project manager for GSE.
The most visible sign of activity is a 200-ton crane with a boom that pierces the skyline. Much of the work has been below ground level, digging giant pits that had to be de-watered because the water level is so high. Today they contain a labyrinth of concrete and steel rebar. The main section of the treatment facility is two football fields long and a football field wide.
If a project this size were under way in town, it would have all sorts of sidewalk superintendents. Instead, it's so far from view that few Modestans know about this $100 million investment that will allow the city to meet environmental mandates, to grow and to provide water to help farmers.
JUST THE BASICS, PLEASE
What is being built? A 12.6 million gallons per day biological nutrient removal tertiary waste-water treatment plant.
Where: At Modesto's Jennings Road Water Quality Control Plant, on 4,700 acres about 10 miles southwest of downtown Modesto
Why is it needed? To upgrade Modesto's sewage treatment facilities so treated water released into the San Joaquin River meets the state's stricter standards for cleanliness and so the city can handle future growth of business, industry and homes
The money: $100.5 million for the plant, being paid for through a Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan, which will be paid off by city sewer customers (homes and businesses) through higher monthly utility bills and higher sewer connection fees. The fees have been increasing since 2008.
Contractor: GSE Construction, Livermore.
When will it be done? May 2016
Engineering design: Carollo Engineers
Construction management and inspection: West Yost Associates
The big picture: The city knew in the mid-1990s that it needed to make major improvements in its sewer system replacing old pipes and equipment, increasing the treatment level and expanding to meet the demands of residential and business growth. But little happened, apparently because city leaders were reluctant to raise sewer rates and because of staff turnover. Mayor Jim Ridenour and the council sitting in 2005-07 got the ball rolling.