The shoreline at Pinecrest Lake was the focus of debate during a nearly packed gathering Thursday as more than 20 concerned people sounded off over how much water should remain in the popular reservoir, during a workshop held at the county Board of Supervisor’s chambers in Sonora.
Pinecrest cabin leaseholders, boating enthusiasts and local environmental groups want to keep the lake level high for recreational purposes, while local developers, Tuolumne Utilities District and PG&E want the freedom to draw more water from the reservoir in dry years.
The hearing was held by members of the California State Water Resources Control Board’s staff, who will collect official written comments through noon on Oct. 18 on the lake level plan before eventually making a final decision on the lake level.
“We know that people have strong views on either side of this,” said Jeff Parks, a water board engineer working on the Pinecrest regulation. “(We are here) just to give you some info and get info from you so we can move forward on this process.”
As part of PG&E’s relicensing process for the Spring Gap-Stanislaus Hydroelectric Project, the state water board set a mandatory minimum water elevation for the lake during Pinecrest’s peak recreation season. Under the current rule, the lake level must stay at or above 5,608 feet elevation until Labor Day as a way to balance both recreation and water use.
The target level was initially set at 5,610 feet and later lowered. The regulation does allow for exceptions during critically dry years, when water is especially scarce.
TUD purchases water from Lyons and Pinecrest reservoirs through a contract with PG&E, and TUD leadership has said the minimum level could be too restrictive during dry years that do not meet the criteria of critically dry.
Multiple speakers on Tuesday pointed to this year as an example. Because of a dry winter, TUD had to use stored water earlier than normal. The district projected that the 5,608-foot minimum could not be met without some extreme conservation measures.
TUD requested and was granted a one-time exception. The board moved the minimum level down two feet, but not without forcing some conservation requirements on TUD customers. With conservation efforts by the district and PG&E, the lake level on Labor Day was around 5,608 feet.
Bob Behee, a TUD board member who said he was speaking on his own behalf, said the district needs more flexibility for times like this year so the community doesn’t have to “go through some hoops” to secure water for its customers like this year.
“TUD would ask for water from Pinecrest only if this community needed it,” Behee said.
TUD and PG&E are seeking to change the rule for the long haul. The long-term goal is to have the option to draw the lake down to 5,606 feet during wet years, 5,604 feet in normal-to-wet years and 5,600 feet in normal-to-dry years.
Multiple speakers in favor of TUD’s proposal said a mandatory lake level of 5,608 could have economic consequences because local water supply would become less predictable. Troy Claveran pointed to a resort project he’s working on at the Yosemite Junction.
Claveran said he has been working with TUD for years on water issues to move the project forward. But questions over future supply have brought the project to “a standstill” as of right now, he said
“If TUD cannot serve our project, then who do they serve?” he said. “This seems more like creating a moratorium not only with water but on our economy.”
Multiple attendees spoke out in favor of the current lake level requirement, pointing to TUD’s own system as a bigger problem for water supply than the regulation. About 40 percent of the water that runs through TUD’s ditch system does not reach customers because of evaporation, leaks and other systemic issues.
Cabin owners and environmental advocates on Thursday repeated that number multiple times, saying the district can fix water supply issues by keeping more of that water in the system.
Allen Green, who is the president of the Friends of Pinecrest organization, questioned why more isn’t spent on improving that infrastructure. A cabin owner himself, Green and the organization filed a formal complaint with the state Environmental Protection Agency over the water loss in the ditch system.
He asked the state board to keep the level as-is and require more conservation by TUD if the district requests more water.
“Lake level is important to us, because recreation is important to us,” Green said. “That’s my vacation. I vacation at Pinecrest.”
Tim Fisher, president of the Pinecrest Permittees Association, also spoke in favor of the current regulation. He questioned water conservation efforts on behalf of TUD and PG&E, and he said lower lake levels are taxing on the safety and water and sewage systems serving the Pinecrest cabins themselves.
“We’re not saying we want to sail so you can’t drink,” Fisher said. “What we’re saying is you need to look at all the aspects.”
State water board staff will continue to accept written comments through Oct. 18.