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County's water crisis 150 years in making

This is the second part of a three-part series examining north and central Tuolumne County’s drought crisis, how we got here and where we’re headed. 

Each year, enough water to serve Tuolumne County’s population for a century surges from the county’s mountain peaks through its canyons and foothill river beds, and beyond. In hydrological terms, it’s a little under 2 million acre-feet — or enough to cover two million football fields in a foot of water. 

All told, the water that courses through the Stanislaus and Tuolumne river watershed accounts for about 4 percent of the state’s yearly water supply, and yet Tuolumne County can claim ownership to nearly none of it. 

Instead, that water makes its way to almond orchards in Escalon and Oakdale, to lawns and water taps in sprawling southern San Joaquin and northern Stanislaus counties, to Central Valley Project water contractors in east Stockton and to fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

How that happened — how seemingly everyone but Tuolumne County ended up with Tuolumne County’s water — was both an accident of circumstance and a lack of foresight.

But the county still lives with the resulting lack of resources and control. And, some would argue, a shortsightedness steeped in the past.

The ramifications are huge — affecting the water security of county residents and potentially hampering economic growth. The problem is particularly acute in dry years like 2014, when the county’s largest water purveyor, Tuolumne Utilities District, is telling customers to cut water use by 50 percent.

The story of how Tuolumne County lost almost all of its water started not long after it became one of the newly formed state of California’s first counties in 1850.

It all started with the ditch system...

Water was an essential part of early gold mining activities that fueled Tuolumne County’s rapid growth in the mid-19th century.

In 1851, a group of miners held meetings in Tuttletown and Shaws Flat to discuss the construction of a ditch that would convey water from Five Mile Creek, now the Cedar Ridge area, to Columbia.

Realizing the need for more water than was available at Five Mile Creek, they extended the project to include the South Fork of the Stanislaus River at a point near the current site of today’s Lyons Dam.

The project was financed by 12 investors who formed the Tuolumne County Water Co. in 1852 and began selling stock.

“To keep the stock, you had to work on the system,” explained Sherrin Grout, a historian at Columbia State Historic Park.

Many miners went on strike in 1853 after the water company began raising water rates. The disgruntled group started a rival company called the Columbia and Stanislaus River Water Co. and constructed a separate ditch system.

The new company ran out of money in 1860 and was acquired by the Tuolumne County Water Co., launching a bitter feud.

According to an article by County Historian Carlo De Ferrari published in The Union Democrat on Aug. 5, 1983, the investors who lost money on the failed company broke ditches, blew up flumes and partially destroyed a dam in their attempts to sabotage the water monopoly.

A handwritten letter to TCWC that’s kept in the archives at Columbia State Historic Park even warns of the planned assassinations of the company’s board members.

“It was a civil war in this town over water,” Grout said. “Even 30 years later, there were still strong feelings.”

Having survived, the Tuolumne County Water Co. acquired a number of smaller systems throughout the 1860s and 1870s before it was reorganized as the Tuolumne County Water and Electric Power Co. in 1898 under new ownership. 

A modern powerhouse was constructed above Phoenix Lake to generate hydroelectric power and provide electricity for quartz mining operations.

Ownership of the company and its assets changed hands several times until a New Jersey-based investment agency gained control in 1909 and formed the Sierra and San Francisco Power Co. to provide electricity for San Francisco’s streetcar system.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — founded in 1905 — was establishing its presence in the hydroelectric industry by purchasing water storage and delivery systems throughout Northern California.

Among PG&E’s purchases in 1927 was the Sierra and San Francisco Power Co., whose  holdings included the Tuolumne County ditch system, Phoenix Lake powerhouse, rights to water out of the South Fork Stanislaus River, and an early version of Lyons Reservoir built by the Tuolumne Hydraulic Mining Co.

Who owns the water?

Water rights were loosely regulated in California prior to the Water Commission Act of 1914.

State laws in the mid- to late-1800s allowed miners and farmers to stake out claims for water on a “first in time, first in right” basis. The Water Commission Act set up a permitting and licensing system for all future water rights applications. The legal rights to those early claims were grandfathered under the new law and are considered superior to any rights claimed after 1914.

“The way water rights work is based on seniority, like the areas around Sonora were developed off mining claims and the mining ditch and power system,” said Jeffrey Parks, who works in the water rights division for the State Water Resources Control Board. “Our water rights laws kind of developed from those early activities.”

Similar to the miners who flocked to California in hopes of striking it rich at the onset of the Gold Rush, PG&E and a number of outside irrigation districts became interested in Tuolumne County’s water resources. They began filing for rights and acquiring storage facilities during the late-1800s and early 1900s.

Most of the Stanislaus River water rights claimed to this day were upheld in a 1929 court ruling in San Joaquin County Superior Court.

The court determined the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts held water rights dating to 1853 for the purpose of irrigating land. The court also upheld pre-1914 rights PG&E gained through its purchase of the Sierra and San Francisco Power Co., including the ability to divert and store water in Lyons and Pinecrest reservoirs.

Parks said the claims laid by PG&E and the irrigation districts basically maxed out the capacity of the Stanislaus — one of two main watersheds in Tuolumne County.

“So anyone trying to add their own rights starting now has a big burden of proof to show there’s enough water left,” Parks said.

The irrigation districts cemented their place on the Stanislaus when building the original Melones Dam to store the 600,000 acre-feet of water they’re entitled to split. After the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built New Melones Reservoir, which swamped Melones Dam, in the late 1970s, the districts were given rights to the first 600,000 acre-feet flowing into the reservoir each year.

Further establishing their footprint, OID and SSJID formed a partnership in 1938 to develop the Tri-Dam Project — three reservoirs straddling Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Tulloch, Donnells and Beardsley reservoirs store about 230,000 acre-feet and provide hydroelectric power which is sold to PG&E.

The Tuolumne River

The county’s other major watershed, the Tuolumne River, was also spoken for early on — by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts first, and then the City and County of San Francisco.

In 1901, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan filed for water rights in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, located in Yosemite National Park, but his application was initially denied by the federal government.

Phelan’s application was opposed by early conservationists John Muir and William E. Colby, who formed the Sierra Club and spearheaded a campaign to oppose the damming of the valley.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire gave new urgency to the city’s need for a larger water supply and officials continued to lobby for water rights. U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Garfield approved the city’s application in 1908.

Despite strong opposition from the Sierra Club, Congress approved construction of  Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in passing the Raker Act of 1913.

Today, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission exports an average of 252,000 acre-feet annually from Hetch Hetchy to serve 2.4 million Bay Area residents.

SFPUC also provided nearly half the funding to construct the New Don Pedro Dam in 1971, giving the city a right to store 570,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts built the first Don Pedro Dam in 1923 and hold rights that date back prior to SFPUC’s. In dry years, the seniority allows MID and TID to draw the reservoir down to meet their own needs before providing water to the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System.

The new dam expanded the maximum storage capacity at Don Pedro Reservoir from 289,000 to more than 2 million acre-feet.

MID and TID together export nearly 900,000 acre-feet of water from Tuolumne County each year for agriculture and municipal uses in Modesto and Turlock.

Pam Conners, a retired U.S. Forest Service historian, has studied the development of major water projects on public lands and says there’s some hope for the county through the federal relicensing process at these dams.

“If Tuolumne County wants to be the arbiter of all the water coming out of the county, it’s not going to happen because the power seat is not there,” she said. “However, Tuolumne County could come to the table and say, ‘Our households and industry can’t be sustained, and yet you’re still washing your cars with a hose in San Francisco.’ ”

Where was the county?

While bigger, more powerful and better financed organizations developed their water supplies during the 20th century, Tuolumne County was mostly content with the short-term economic benefits.

“People were moving in and they needed places to live, food to eat, places to shop, it was a really prosperous time when those were built. I think the community viewed it as a very positive impact on the local economy, and it provided jobs at a time when people were looking for work,” said Sharon Marovich, president of the Tuolumne Heritage Committee. 

However, it wasn’t long after the boom period that the county realized its ability to secure water for the future was shrinking rapidly.

The Board of Supervisors established Tuolumne County Water District No. 2 in 1947, primarily “because of apprehensions that outside interests were going to develop all of the water resources of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers for their own uses, and leave nothing for Tuolumne County,” according to a report on the district’s activities filed with the County Clerk’s Office in 1969.

The district set out to stifle outside interests attempting to take the little remaining unappropriated water from the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. The district intended to file for water rights to cover the future county needs, and to design large storage projects and obtain financing for those projects.

In 1957, Water District No. 2 obtained the assistance of the state Department of Water Resources to investigate developing water resources for the county.

The cooperative investigation produced a document called Bulletin No. 95, released in 1962, that presented a project to build three dams and reservoirs along the Tuolumne River that would provide a combined 50,000 acre-feet of additional storage.

The estimated cost of the project, however, ballooned from $8 million in 1962 to $15 million in 1968. Both the Department of Water Resources and California Water Commission at the time expressed doubt over whether the county could gain approval from the state for grant money to fund the expensive project.

A smaller reservoir project at Brownes Meadow, east of Long Barn, was considered but the county district scrapped it, saying it would provide only half the public benefits and require a similarly large commitment of cash from the state.

During the historic drought of 1976-77, another study concluded the county would need supplemental sources to provide an extra 16,000 acre-feet by the year 2020. At the time, the county had only 25,000 acre-feet of storage — the same amount it has today behind Lyons and Pinecrest dams.

Some ideas outlined in the report to increase the available storage included raising Lyons Dam, piping the Shaws Flat and Sonora ditches and pumping water out of New Melones Reservoir.

The study noted that water rates at the time wouldn’t cover the costs of such projects. Rates had been increased only once since PG&E took over the water system in the 1920s.

PG&E had actually proposed a rate increase to cover system improvements in 1973, but the projects never went forward due to community objections.

New Melones?

A plan to pump water out of New Melones never panned out due to increasing regulatory requirements.

In 1972, the county withdrew a water rights protest to halt the filling of New Melones after it was promised water by the Bureau of Reclamation under a written agreement signed Nov. 29, 1972.

County Water District No. 2, and later TUD, tried to secure a contract with the bureau for more than 20 years with no success. The bureau said it couldn’t sell any water from New Melones until it met various obligations of the Endangered Species Act, the 1994 Bay Delta Accord and other water quality and environmental requirements.

“The county thought they had it in the bag,” said Pete Kampa, a former TUD general manager. “They just didn’t recognize what was going on around them with new laws that were closing their window of opportunity.”

New regulations also motivated PG&E to sell the 57-mile ditch system back to the county in 1983 at a cost of $1 million. 

PG&E, which provides electricity and natural gas to 15 million Californians, was looking to get out of the water business after the California Public Utilities Commission ordered it to pipe the system at a cost of more than $50 million.

“There were going to be new regulations issued to PG&E that would be very costly to the point where customers of the water system couldn’t pay for it,” said Dave Sweitzer, PG&E’s Sonora manager from 1986 to 1992. “The idea was to get rid of the system and let a non-regulated agency like TUD take it over.”

TUD was formed in 1992 by a voter initiative to merge the Tuolumne Water Systems and Tuolumne Regional Water District, formerly the County Water District No. 2.

The newly-established district took over maintenance and operation of the ditch system, as well as a patchwork of failing systems the county had acquired throughout the 1980s.

Now, TUD faces both mounting issues with the deteriorating infrastructure inherited from the old systems as well as further constraints on its already limited supply due to a minimum lake-level requirement that was placed on Pinecrest in 2008.

Kampa was hired in 2006 and quickly became familiar with the uphill battle TUD faced to reverse more than 100 years of inaction on its water supply situation. He estimates 75 to 95 percent of his time was spent trying to tackle the issue.

Much of his work went into crafting plans and working closely with state lawmakers and regulatory agencies. However, money budgeted for long-term planning and strategizing was always the first on the chopping block as operational costs continued to rise.

“That was the easiest to eliminate when the board didn’t want to increase rates,” Kampa said.

Four out of five new directors were elected in the November 2012 election and the new board ultimately decided to buy out Kampa’s contract for $175,000 in October 2013. Tom Scesa, the district’s chief engineer at the time, was hired to replace Kampa.

Board members cited a desire to go in a new direction with Scesa that would focus more on addressing the immediate needs of the district’s infrastructure, such as repairing aging storage tanks and sewer pipeline.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize that our community’s water supply was out of our hands and basically in the hands of PG&E and rules issued by the state and federal government,” Kampa said of his time as general manager. “When you can’t control whether your community gets water, that’s a water manager’s worst nightmare.”

There are also some who see that lack of control as a barrier to economic growth. 

Sweitzer said the limited supply is detrimental because businesses typically assess the water supply situation before moving into an area.

“Everybody knew 20 years ago that it gets pretty tight in dry years but there’s basically been no new storage,” he said. “It’s going to be hard keeping young people in the county, because businesses go where the infrastructure is.”

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