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Modesto water protest faltering

By MICHAEL G. MOONEY
BEE STAFF WRITER

As of Friday, 8,441 Modesto water users had filed "protest ballots" objecting to the city's proposed five-year package of water rate increases, the first one planned for Jan. 1.

While significant, the number of protests so far falls well below the 37,001 needed to derail the plan. Under state law, more than half of the city's estimated 74,000 water users must object to the increases to stop them from taking effect.

City Clerk Jean Zahr said more protest ballots were expected to be received by Tuesday evening, when the City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the water rate plan.

Zahr said protest ballots also can be delivered to the City Council meeting.

Barring a last-minute deluge of protest ballots, however, council members are likely to give the water rate increases final approval after the hearing concludes.

Public Works Director Peter Cowles said his department, as well as the Finance Department, has received a lot of calls from people who say they plan to attend the hearing.

Cowles said the city is bracing for a crowd of 60 to 100 people or more.

"I think we'll have more people than we did at previous hearings," he said.

Dave Thomas, who has questioned key elements of the city's water rate proposal, hinted Friday that a legal challenge could be launched against the plan, should it win approval Tuesday.

"People are very, very upset," said Thomas, adding that he has been working with "concerned citizens" in Grayson and Del Rio, as well as Modesto, who question the scope of the planned increases.

Grayson, on Stanislaus County's West Side, and Del Rio, north of Modesto, are among several communities included in the Modesto water system. Others are Salida, Empire, Waterford and Hickman. The system also includes small sections of Ceres and Turlock.

"I've never opposed an honest increase to improve our water system," Thomas said. "It's a question of fairness. All we're saying is charge us a fair rate."

Under the city plan, most business and residential customers would pay 14 percent to 43 percent more for water beginning Jan. 1.

An increase of up to 20 percent would be imposed July 1.

That increase would be followed by a boost of up to 15 percent on July, 1, 2006, and successive increases of up to 5 percent on July 1, 2007, and July 1, 2008.

The exact charge for each customer would depend on their lot size and the location of their home or business.

Weaned from the well

Today, the city gets most of its drinking water from wells.

But as state and federal standards for toxic substances found in groundwater become more stringent, city officials say Modesto will need to rely more on surface water river water collected and held in reservoirs.

The city, working with the Modesto Irrigation District, is contemplating about $104 million worth of improvements.

The MID operates a treatment plant at Modesto Reservoir, and officials say the agency needs about $40 million to double the plant's capacity to 60 million gallons a day.

Additionally, city officials have said it will take $64 million to pay for a raft of other improvements, including:

Three large storage tanks each with a capacity of 4 million to 6 million gallons and associated pumping stations.

Fourteen miles of transmission and distribution lines.

Thirty-five regulating stations to control the flow coming from the treatment plant into the city's distribution system. The stations would help improve water pressure.

The financing plan under consideration calls for existing customers to bear about 74 percent of the cost of the improvements. New growth would cover the remainder through connection fees.

"I'll take it on their word that the (water) system probably needs some work," Thomas said. "What I'm worried about is the fairness of a massive rate increase."

Thomas said he believes city officials have overstated the seriousness of Modesto's water woes especially problems with contaminated wells and systemwide water pressure as a way to sell the rate increases to the public.

"That's absolutely false," Cowles said. "The contaminant problems are nonarguable. We have wells out of service because of contaminants."

Thomas also questioned the city's growth-rate assumptions one of the factors upon which the proposed rate increases are based as well as the city's need to collect millions of dollars "up front" when some of the improvements are years in the future.

After reviewing city data, Thomas said he had determined that demand for water from 1998 to 2003 increased 0.4 percent a year.

That means, according to Thomas, that the city is forecasting a growth rate four times higher than actual demand for water.

But Cowles said Modesto's population grew about 1.65 percent per year from 1995 to 2004.

Based upon that rate, he said, city planners project an annual growth rate of 1.64 percent per year through 2009.

If those projections are correct, at least 400,000 people would be calling Modesto home by 2025. Today, the city's population is estimated at more than 206,000.

"Where are they going to put all those people?" Thomas asked. "We don't have enough land available for that kind of growth."

Tuesday's City Council meeting is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St. Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at 578-2384 or mmooney@modbee.com.