SF sale, treatment plant issues run like current through Modesto area

Modesto Bee
June 2, 2012

Water goes everywhere. It leaks, it gushes, it overflows. And these days it’s seeping into and roaring through the community discussion on several levels. Today we provide updates and some thoughts on three water-related subjects:

1. The proposed sale of Modesto Irrigation District Water to San Francisco: The MID is waiting for a revised draft contract from San Francisco, which the MID staff will review and share with the board before making public. That could be arriving this week — or later. The board is scheduled to vote on the contract June 25. If the new version isn’t out soon, the board should postpone decision day to allow ample time for public review.

2. The debacle with the water treatment plant at Modesto Reservoir: There are two major developments.

First, as Mayor Garrad Marsh previously stated, city of Modesto water users likely will face higher bills because of the construction flaws. Originally the Phase II plant was to cost $63 million; fixing those construction flaws and completing the project is expected to be an additional $27 million.

It’s a legal spider web. The city is supporting the MID in its lawsuits against the company that designed and provided construction management and the separate company that has been building the plant. Meanwhile, the city and the MID also are suing each other. Those lawsuits are likely to take years to resolve, and in the meantime the city and MID want the project to get done.

Tuesday’s council meeting includes a proposal to start the public hearing process to raise water rates for city customers — residential and business. The rate proposal was explained in a story on our front page Saturday.

Second, settlement talks between the MID and the city over who will pay upfront for the construction do-overs have taken an interesting turn with the city’s suggestion that it wants to own the treatment facilities — both Phase I, completed in 1994, and Phase II, which was supposed to be done in 2009 and is now at least a year from completion.

While this idea must have a full — and very public — vetting, we think it’s worth exploring. The MID drove a hard bargain back in the early 1990s when it convinced the city to pay for for all the construction costs of the treatment plant and the ongoing operating costs while the MID retained ownership. The city is in a stronger negotiating position today — and has a new mayor who is eager to take on big projects.

Several points to consider:

• Who will be able to operate the plant the most efficiently, considering both personnel and short- and long-term maintenance costs?

• Will owning the plant give the city ownership of the water it treats — and therefore the ability to pipe that water across the Tuolumne River to serve Modestans on the south side or even to sell that water to Ceres or another community? The MID can only serve customers on the north side of the river, so the plant ownership change would be significant.

• How would the city owning the plant affect the discussions involving Turlock, Ceres, Hughson and Modesto for another surface water treatment plant in the Turlock Irrigation District?

There are lots of angles to be considered.

3. The city’s huge waste-water treatment project. While all the controversy has swirled over the potential sale and the troubles at the Modesto Reservoir project, the city has been quietly advancing the repair, upgrade and expansion of waste-water treatment. Last month the City Council awarded a $100.5 million contract to a Livermore firm to build Phase II of the tertiary waste-water treatment project.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled Tuesday at the site, part of the Jennings Road sewage treatment facility seven miles west of downtown. Actual construction is expected to begin within two months and to run through fall 2015.

The plant will remove ammonia, nitrates and other bad elements, and treat the water to meet the 2016 state-imposed deadline on the city. Not only will the waste water be clean enough to release into the San Joaquin River year-round, it also will be clean enough to be reused on farms or for irrigation.

GSE Construction Co. is the general contractor on the project.

The company and its subcontractors will hire 70 to 100 skilled craftspeople during various stages. Learning from the MID’s bad experience at Modesto Reservoir, the city hired Carollo Engineers, which designed the facility, to continue to provide engineering services during construction and another company, West Yost, to handle construction management and inspections.

Modesto property owners have been paying increasingly higher monthly bills to help pay for this plant, but in the end the city will have sewage treatment facilities that comply with the state’s high standards and that will allow the city to serve current and new businesses. While this project is expensive and out of sight, it will be a major asset for the community for decades.

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