TURLOCK — A typical home could see its water bill nearly double over five years under a proposal that will go before the City Council in March.
Rates could rise even higher if Turlock joins in building a treatment plant for Tuolumne River water that would reduce its uneasy reliance on wells.
The council voted 5-0 Tuesday night to launch the process for the first set of increases, involving the current groundwater system. The average monthly bill would rise gradually from $24.05 now to $47.10 by 2019. Business rates also would go up.
The council could not approve the hikes if more than half of the affected customers file protests at or before a March 25 public hearing. That has rarely happened since Proposition 218 in 1996 set up the process statewide.
A city staff report said Turlocks current rates are far less than those of Modesto, Ceres and Merced. Councilman Steven Nascimento said residents have sort of been spoiled by low charges for water.
The staff offered two possible schedules, both of them ending in the $47.10 average rate by 2019. One calls for increases of various sizes each year from 2014 on. The other would skip a 2015 increase but make up for it in other years.
The extra income would help cover operating costs and capital improvements for wells, distribution pipes, storage tanks and other parts of the system.
The wells occasionally exceed limits for contaminants such as arsenic and nitrates, said Michael Cooke, municipal services director for the city. He also cited reports of reduced groundwater in the Turlock area because of overpumping for farming and other uses.
The groundwater situation in our area is a challenge, Cooke said. It is diminishing as a resource and the water table is declining.
The proposed treatment plant along the river has been discussed for years. Under the current plan, which is preliminary, the plant would treat Turlock Irrigation District water for Turlock, Ceres and the part of Modesto south of the river. Past versions included smaller towns within the TID boundary.
The city staff projects that the average Turlock homes rate would have to rise to $62.95 per month by 2019 to pay for the plant and other water needs.
Should the plant win approval, perhaps in a couple of years, the council could redo the Proposition 218 process to reflect the cost.
The project would be similar to a plant the Modesto Irrigation District built in the mid-1990s to provide surface water to the part of Modesto north of the Tuolumne. It reduced reliance on wells, and an expansion under construction will do even more.
When they started pumping less groundwater, the aquifer recovered rapidly in the Modesto area, Cooke said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.