Farmers need water. The city needs money. Modesto officials say they have a plan that could help both parties.
The city is looking at piping its treated waste water to water-starved growers on the West Side, where it would be used to irrigate crops.
The city would sell the treated water to the Del Puerto Water District, a 45,000-acre span along Interstate 5 that's been hard hit by the water shortage.
The plan could move closer to reality with a Modesto City Council vote tonight. The council will consider whether to pay $25,000 toward a feasibility study of the project.
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The water district's board approved chipping in $25,000 for the study, which is estimated to cost $100,000. The city plans to ask the federal Bureau of Reclamation to pick up the rest of the tab, said Nick Pinhey, the city's director of utility planning and projects.
If the idea moves ahead, the water-delivery system could be in place about 2013, Pinhey said.
Pinhey said it would cost roughly $35 million to build the pipeline and facilities to ship and store the treated water.
Selling the treated water could generate $1.8 million to $2.3 million in new revenue per year for the city, Pinhey said. The project could help hold residential water rates steady, because treating waste water for irrigation likely will be cheaper than treating waste water destined for rivers.
"If we're able to enter into long-term agreements for irrigation, it avoids some significant future costs that may be coming up on the horizon to remove smaller and smaller things from the water," Pinhey said. "The land requirements don't change as fast as the river requirements."
First, though, officials will have to sell the idea to a public that could be squeamish about putting water that once sat in toilet bowls on crops.
"There are people out there who don't understand the concept of recycled water and have health concerns and worries," Pinhey said. "This project would be producing a quality of water that could be used for everything but drinking. If you wanted to, you could swim in it."
The water the city wants to sell would be cleaned using a stringent method known as tertiary treatment. Toxins such as ammonia are removed from the water, which makes it appealing to farmers, Pinhey said.
Today, the city's treated water ends up back in the San Joaquin River or sprinkled on the city-owned ranch land next to the sewer plant. It would be put to better use on the West Side, said Bill Harrison, Del Puerto Water District general manager.
The district's water deliveries have been slashed to 10 percent of its usual allotment. The water shortage has fallowed fields and cost thousands of agricultural jobs, he said.
The water district has been forced to use lower-quality groundwater and buy expensive water from other sources, Harrison said.
"We're exploring all possibilities and opportunities for long-term improvement of our water supplies to maintain the agricultural viability of our land," Harrison said. "This is an idea whose time has come."