Though the Tuolumne Utilities District has a lot of work to do if it wants to secure a reliable water source for the community, its top, immediate priority is to get more leeway from the state for using Pinecrest Lake water during dry years.
During a special joint meeting of the TUD Board of Directors and the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, TUD officials presented the county board and the public with an overview and history lesson on the TUD water system and pointed out issues the system and district will face in the future.
The discussion covered a lot of ground, from discussing Tuolumne County’s lack of an independent water right and how to get one, to how the state’s Delta Stewardship Council could affect local water issues and policies with its anticipated Delta Plan.
But participants with TUD and the county agreed that they want to see a requirement by the California State Water Resources Control Board that Pinecrest drops no lower than an elevation of 5,608 feet during the summer change.
“First and foremost, that’s the biggest concern that we have,” said TUD General Manager Pete Kampa.
Kampa said the Sacramento-based state water board will likely hold a public workshop in the next two months on a lake level study by PG&E for Pinecrest. The state required the study after lowering the minimum level from 5,610 to 5,608 at TUD’s request.
The study outlines the effects different lake levels have on recreation at Pinecrest, which is a popular summertime destination for boaters, campers, swimmers and fishing. The minimum level requirement is a recent regulation, put in place to protect recreation experience at the lake when PG&E relicensed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Kampa said that the lake has historically been drawn down during dry years further than 5,610, and on that basis the district and PG&E are looking to set up a tiered system that allows different minimum lake levels for different years.
“There were not many years when the lake level was maintained at 5,620 or higher,” Kampa said.
TUD was granted an exception to the new rule for this summer, as a below-average winter snowpack has led the district to switch to stored water earlier than ever. TUD purchases its water through an agreement with PG&E.
The effort to change the minimum lake level could be complicated by a complaint filed to the water board over alleged “waste and unreasonable use” of water. The complaint alleges that the district wastes as much as 40 percent of its water supply through leaks and losses in the ditch and flume system, said Jesse Barton, TUD’s attorney.
State water law states that all water must be put to reasonable and beneficial use, Barton said.
The district will dispute the complaint, which is currently under investigation. However, if after the investigation and administrative hearing the state board agrees with the complaint, it could lead to a cease and desist order form the state and requirements to fix the issue.
“We disagree entirely that any losses from the ditch system are … wasteful or unreasonable,” Barton said.
During the meeting, TUD and county officials covered a number of other, long-term water issues the community will likely face. Because the district does not have a water right, nor does any public entity in the county, its water supply is subject to additional restrictions and regulations connected to PG&E’s supply.
Barton said there is a process to obtain such a water right from the state, though it would take as long as a decade and cost millions, he said.
Should the district pursue such a right, it would also have to deal with water storage by either building new dams or reservoirs, using existing storage or expanding storage like Lyons reservoir.
Multiple members of the county Board of Supervisors agreed the district should pursue some of those long-term issues.
“These numbers are intimidating to some degree, but they’re only going to go up,” Supervisor Evan Royce said of the costs.
However, at least one member of the public disagreed with the need to move on such projects.
John Buckley, director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, said he believes TUD will get a lower lake level. And if that’s the case, Buckley cla imed that local water supply would be set for at least 25 years.
“There’s a solution here that won’t mean an … expansion of a reservoir TUD does not own,” he said.