Whose groundwater supply is healthy? The city of Modesto

11/23/2013 12:00 AM

11/23/2013 4:40 PM

All around Modesto there’s growing concern about groundwater.

On the east side of Stanislaus County, some wells have gone dry as some farmers drill industrial-sized wells to nurture new almond orchards. In some areas of Merced County, the land has actually sunk due to overdrafting the aquifer.

So it’s worth noting that there’s one place in our region where the groundwater level is not a concern – the city of Modesto.

The city’s wells have and will be affected by drought, but overall the city has a healthy and stable water supply for one simple reason: It doesn’t depend entirely on well water, as do all the other cities. For almost 20 years, Modesto has gotten about half its water from its wells and about half from the Tuolumne River.

In 1991, the City Council and the MID board of directors signed a deal calling for the MID to build and operate a $120 million plant near Modesto Reservoir for treatment of river water. The city and Del Este Water Co. would buy the potable water that came from it. (Later, the city bought Del Este.)

It was a milestone decision that drew relatively little fanfare at the time. That plant went into operation in 1994, and a second phase is under construction now. There were major construction problems, but it is due for completion in mid-2015.

Once that plant is operating, Modesto might get as much as 65 percent of its water for households and businesses from the river.

By not relying entirely on groundwater, Modesto has a dependable supply into the foreseeable future.

The reliable supply doesn’t mean that city residents have all the water they want to use. Restrictions on watering lawns and gardens, with each household limited to three days a week, remain in effect year-round. And the move to water meters, mandated by the state, has predictably resulted in homeowners being more prudent in their water use. About 75 percent of the city’s service area is on meters; the remainder of homes will be metered by 2022, well ahead of the state’s 2025 deadline.

Finally, in an effort to reduce costs, the city has started drilling wells at its largest parks and using untreated water for irrigation. Water for landscaping does not need to meet the same strict standards as water for drinking. The city also has some strategies to encourage conservation, such as a rebate for installing toilets that use less water.

City water bills went up to pay for the treatment plant, but in the past five years, the only increases have been the automatic adjustments tied to the Consumer Price Index. A new rate study likely will be done in a couple of years, because of the completion of the second phase of the treatment plant and because Modesto, Turlock and Ceres are trying to negotiate with the Turlock Irrigation District for a surface water treatment plant for the urban residents south of the Tuolumne River. Modesto is involved in that project because Modesto extends across the river.

We have urged the TID and the south county cities to work out the deal and get started on a treatment plant. Until then, Turlock, Ceres and other cities are vulnerable to the dropping groundwater level. Modesto, in contrast, is not.

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