Tuolumne Utilities District representatives are concerned about how a state mandate on the Pinecrest lake level could affect local water supplies this summer.
TUD General Manager Pete Kampa said during a special meeting on Wednesday that the district is requesting the State Water Resources Control Board allow PG&E to draw down the lake level two feet lower than currently allowed over the summer.
Because of below-average snow levels, Kampa and engineer Glen Nunnelley said, there will not be enough water in Pinecrest and Lyons Reservoir to keep the popular lake at or above the required 5,608 foot elevation level.
Kampa said they are seeking a one-season exemption from the elevation mandate while the state, TUD and PG&E work on a long-term lake level agreement that does not degrade the lake’s attraction for tourists, but also accounts for local water demand.
Pinecrest Lake provides most of the district’s fresh water, which is stored at Lyons. The stored water at Lyons can last about 65 days without regeneration before water has to come from Pinecrest, according to TUD.
“There’s no possible way we can accomplish 5,608 feet this year,” Kampa said Wednesday. “It can’t occur.”
Both Kampa and Nunnelley said the district will still likely implement some water conservation measures even if they are allowed to bring the lake down to 5,606 feet by Labor Day. But they also said it would make it possible to get through the season without more-extreme conservation measures, like large cuts in water appropriation to agriculture or high-volume customers, or 40-plus percent conservation requirements across the board.
“Now is the time to be open about it so that everyone can understand,” Kampa said. “It’s not a done deal right now.”
Nunnelley said TUD engineers can estimate this year’s situation by looking at 2007, when similar conditions occurred. When water stops spilling over the Pinecrest dam, more water is leaving the reservoir than entering it. Nunnelly said a July “end of spill” means there would likely be no problem keeping the lake above 5,608 feet.
In 2007, the lake dropped to 5,605 feet after the spill stopped on June 8, and Nunnelley said they’re looking at the spill stopping around June 4.
“Right now we’re watching the water carefully,” he said. “We’re absorbing (the extra foot) through water conservation. We’re not asking for anything more here.”
TUD does not have an independent water right along the South Fork of the Stanislaus River, which provides water to more than 44,000 customers. The district operates under an agreement with PG&E, which owns rights to the water in Pinecrest.
When PG&E relicensed the Spring Gap Hydroelectric Facility in 2008, regulators initially set the summer season lake level at 5,610 feet. Kampa said they later negotiated that number to 5,608, and PG&E has since conducted a study that suggests other level options.
Kampa said TUD’s long-term goal is to have more flexibility for extreme seasons, with the option to draw the lake down to 5,606 during wet years, 5,604 in normal-to-wet years and 5,600 in normal-to-dry years.
That proposal has not sat well with a number of Pinecrest regulars, and cabin owners have protested the variable lake level during the summer.
“We’re not saying it’s us against them. How can we coexist?” Kampa said. “All you’ve got to do is recognize that this lake is going to fluctuate.”
But John Buckley, of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said the TUD Board of Directors and staff need to look inside of the district to deal with water supply issues. Though Buckley said he believes the one-year request by TUD is reasonable and will be granted, he also criticized the district for not making more aggressive efforts toward conservation.
“There could have been, and there still continues to be, opportunities for conservation that would reduce that demand,” he said.
He also suggested TUD staff has taken a “confrontational” stance with the state water board, and he said recreational use of the water is held at no higher standard than domestic use. As many as 25,000 people are in the Pinecrest basin during a busy weekend, he said.
“People come to Pinecrest primarily for the aesthetics,” Buckley said.
Kampa countered by saying he and TUD staff have worked well with the state water board staff and are trying to work this one-year window out without having to appeal directly to the board itself. He said many of the state staff have been thoughtful and accommodating.
“We’re trying not to create that confrontational relationship,” Kampa said.
TUD requested the one-time lake level earlier this month, but the state water board requested more information before issuing a response. Kampa said he expects a response “fairly quickly.”