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Lodi’s Water Plant Plans Drying Out: City Lacks Funding to Store Unused River Resource, Risks Losing It

July 14, 2008

By Daniel Thigpen, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

Jul. 14–LODI — Since 2003, Lodi officials have spent $1.2 million each year — about $6 million so far — for the rights to tap drinking water from the river that cuts across Lodi’s northern city line.

Only no one is drinking it.

And while the city is in essence “storing” billions of gallons of that Mokelumne River water for future consumption, Lodi could start losing it — and the money it has spent — if it is not used in a couple of years.

The problem is Lodi doesn’t have a plant to treat the water so residents can drink it. Plans to build one now are on hold because the funding, which would come from new housing fees, does not exist.

The choice facing city officials now: They can wait out the housing slump and hope the economy improves in time to pay for the plant, or they can look for other options.

They’re hoping for a Plan B.

“If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it,” said Wally Sandelin, the city’s Public Works Department director. “We don’t want to throw away $1.2 million” a year.

Like many cities, Lodi gets its drinking water from the ground. But over the years, as growth has increased demand, groundwater levels have decreased.

City officials say they have enough water to meet demand now, but not enough to serve future growth.

In 2003, the city struck a deal with the Woodbridge Irrigation District to tap the Mokelumne River at a rate of 6,000 acre-feet of water annually in exchange for $1.2 million each year.

One acre-foot equals roughly about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve about two single-family households each year.

Work on a plant to treat that water, estimated to cost about $41 million, has been slow. City leaders did not have a site picked until last fall.

In the meantime, the city has been “banking” its unused water — not literally storing water, but rather saving up the rights to use the water later. It can continue to do so until the fall of 2010, when it will have saved up the rights to some 42,000 acre-feet of water.

If the city hasn’t started using the water by then, it will start losing it.

According to the city’s agreement with the irrigation district, credits for unused water expire after eight years. That means that water banked in 2003 is lost in 2011 and the same each year after that.

City planners had hoped the fees charged to big housing developments in the pipeline would pay for the water plant. But the bad economy has put those projects on hold.

Sandelin said city officials plan to do several things: begin designing a plant anyway, search for other funding options, and discuss a contingency plan or extension with the irrigation district.

He said he still hopes to start construction on the water treatment plant in 2010, and it could take more than a year to build. Sandelin also said the city might explore selling off some of its banked water to other agencies, but any such move would have to be approved by the Woodbridge district first.

Andy Christensen, the irrigation district’s manager, said the city’s agreement doesn’t have any provisions for selling off the water it has already purchased. As for negotiating another extension so the plant can be built in time, he said: “We’re always willing to discuss that with our customers.”

Vice Mayor Larry Hansen, who has criticized the city in the past for moving slow on the water plant, said city leaders may need to discuss other funding options, such as ratepayers partially funding the costs, but he said he would wait to see what planners propose.

“At some point, some hard decisions are going to have to be made,” he said. “Our underground water table is decreasing. We may all have to share in the cost of building that plant to replenish it.”

Contact reporter Daniel Thigpen at (209) 367-7427 or dthigpen@recordnet.com.

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