A proposed water plant for Ceres and Turlock faces potentially significant opposition from the Modesto Irrigation District, whose attorney fears potential erosion of water rights because the cities’ environmental studies aren’t up to snuff, the attorney said.
General Counsel Ronda Lucas in late April blasted the cities' plan in an official letter on behalf of MID, saying, "We have no other option but to object to the project."
Her comments had the effect of halting progress on the water plant, an important project aimed at providing a new tap water source for Ceres and Turlock. Both rely exclusively on groundwater; the plant would treat Tuolumne River water before delivery to the cities.
But Lucas didn't consult with MID board members, some of whom don't agree with her stance, the board's John Mensinger said. MID has a close relationship with the Turlock Irrigation District, which hopes to build and operate the water plant for the two cities.
"For a lot of reasons, I regret the fact that these comments were made," Mensinger said. "I think we should be supporting the plant. I understand the water rights concern, but I think it's unlikely that our water rights would be threatened."
Lucas did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. Board chairman Nick Blom said he was aware that Lucas had been preparing the opposition.
The flap was to be aired at an MID board meeting Tuesday morning, but players backed down and said they’ll resolve problems at the staff level. A private meeting is set for next week.
TID expressed no such opposition when MID built a similar water plant for the city of Modesto, more than 20 years ago.
The regulatory environment has changed since then, and the sister irrigation districts face significant threats to their water supplies on the Tuolumne at both the state and federal levels.
The partnership of Ceres and Turlock, known as the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority, hopes to begin construction in 2020 at a site along the river near Hughson, and the plant is expected to cost up to $200 million. Lucas' comments were based on the authority's draft Environmental Impact Report, required by state law for such projects.
"MID does not have adequate assurances the project will not adversely affect our jointly held (with TID) water right," Lucas wrote, charging that the draft EIR contains "deficiences" and "run(s) counter to the intent" of state environmental law.
Mensinger said, "I understand it's the general counsel's job to be very protective of our water rights. I just would have preferred that this be resolved before the comments were made."
After the MID meeting Tuesday, the board met in closed session on items including evaluating Lucas' performance. No action was taken, MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.
The dispute prompted Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth's resignation three weeks ago as chairman of the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority. He had been a vocal cheerleader for the water plant, including a discussion last month in Washington, D.C. with U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, but Soiseth's day job is analyzing state and federal legislation for MID.
"I made the decision to step down from the SRWA board out of an abundance of caution," Soiseth said Tuesday. "I didn't want my employment to be perceived as a conflict."
Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra, also an authority member, said Lucas' comments were "a little concerning," but added, "I'm hopeful after some discussions there won't be any issues."
"Water rights in California are sacred," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells. "Everyone is concerned about those; we get it.
"But we're all on the same side of this," Wells said, "and I'm confident we can get to resolution."
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390