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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Troubled Waters Part II: County’s water crisis 150 years in making

Troubled Waters Part II: County’s water crisis 150 years in making

Water spills over O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. File Photo / Union Democrat.
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. Part 1 appeared in the May 30 edition and Part 3 will run next Friday.


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.

For the complete story, see the June 6, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat. 

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