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Water agencies leery of possible drought year

Mother Lode representatives in the state legislature have joined dozens of other lawmakers calling on Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama to declare a drought emergency in California.

State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, were among the lawmakers who co-signed a letter sent Wednesday requesting state and federal agencies to “use their discretion” and find ways to ensure enough water is allocated through the State Water Project and Central Valley Water Project.

The letter cited the previous two dry years and a possible third in 2014, along with the low initial water allocation for State Water Project contractors and from the Department of Water Resources.

But how would a state and federal drought declaration affect water agencies in the foothills?

Water managers in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties say the request itself would likely have few direct impacts on agencies in the area, though the effects of another drought year would be far-reaching.

“It would probably have little effect on us based on what they’re requesting,” said Tuolumne Utilities District General Manager Tom Scesa. “But an actual drought would be of significant impact to the district and customers.”

The district, which supplies water to most residents in Tuolumne County, is under contract with PG&E to draw water from Lyons and Pinecrest reservoirs.

Scesa said TUD is already cutting back diversions from Lyons to keep the reservoir as full as possible, in case predictions for another dry year come true.

“This year, we’ll hold back as much water as we can until we know whether we’ll get the rainfall,” he said. “We operate so we can be reactive and flexible to the changing situation.”

Depending on the amount of precipitation the area receives early next year, the district could be asking customers to conserve as early as February, Scesa said. 

Despite the grim outlook predicted by the DWR, Scesa noted several long-term forecasts — one from the Farmers Almanac and another from NOAA — that offer hope for a wet winter in the state.

“If the NOAA predictions from a month ago come true, we should be getting some fairly intense cold storms in January,” he said.

The Calaveras County Water District will have enough water to meet the needs of its customers even if a drought emergency is declared, said CCWD General Manager Mitch Dion.

The district is the largest water provider in Calaveras County and draws its supply from Spicer Reservoir, White Pines Lake and the Mokelumne River.

Dion said one of the indirect impacts from a state and federal drought emergency would be to raise awareness for statewide conservation.

“We will have the water to meet our needs, but the awareness to conserve and be good stewards is a social responsibility,” he said.

The Utica Water and Power Authority management staff and board have been holding meetings lately to prepare for the possibility a dry year, according to UWPA General Manager Vern Pyle.

“The last storm had very little water content in the snow even though we got a lot of it,” he said. “It’s looking similar to what we went through last year, so I don’t believe we’re going to have a real wet year.” 

The UWPA has been under the same contract since 1996 and receives a certain amount of water per year to supply Murphys and Angels Camp.

Pyle said the agency maintains its delivery system through revenues generated by producing power, but has been operating in the red because of the past two dry years.

The UWPA had a $450,000 budget deficit last year due to the disparity in power generation, Pyle said, and could be facing a similar one if conditions remain mostly dry through winter.

“We’re looking to lessen the impacts,” he said of the possible upcoming drought year. “It’s a major concern for everybody.”

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