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TUD proves itself to be a good neighbor - again

Herring Creek, the sole source of supply for the Strawberry water system, is about to dry up.

In earlier years, this might have thrown the high-country community into a panic. The Conlin-Strawberry Water Co., which owned and operated the system for decades, had a less- than-exemplary record: Boil orders, outages, numerous code violations and pitched battles with the California Public Utilities Commission and with its own customers marked the company's long and rocky tenure.

But now there's a new owner in town: The Chico-based Del Oro Water Co. bought the utility from previous owner Danny Conlin. Not only that, but it last week struck a deal with the Tuolumne Utilities District and PG&E that will keep its 383 customers in water after the creek runs dry.

Del Oro, which manages a dozen small California water systems from Kern to Humboldt counties, has made the once-troubled Strawberry system its latest acquisition. "Massive improvements" are now planned, said Del Oro spokeswoman Kristin Aguiar.

If the response of the company and of TUD to this summer's worsening drought is any indication, Strawberry customers should be happy.

Del Oro last month realized that the dropping levels in Herring Creek did not bode well. Conservation measures, including irrigation restrictions, were imposed. But the level of Herring Creek has nevertheless dropped to 13.5 inches — just four inches above the intake pipe.

"Even a sharp reduction in demand cannot offset what may prove to be virtual cessation of supply in Herring Creek," said Del Oro President Robert Fortino.

So the company approached TUD concerning an emergency supply. The district acted promptly, drafting and last week approving a deal that will supply Strawberry customers with up to 100 acre-feet of water — about 326 million gallons — from the South Fork of the Stanislaus River through October. Bought from PG&E and then resold to Del Oro, the water is deemed surplus that TUD has the right to purchase but does not anticipate needing even in this drought year.

Although costs could be passed on to Del Oro's Strawberry customers, Aguiar said the details have yet to be worked out.

The arrangement seems like a win-win situation and TUD should be again commended for coming to the rescue of customers facing a crisis. Last year, the district stepped in to save about 200 Soulsbyville and Wards Ferry-area customers of the notoriously inefficient Matt Dillon Water Co. from years more of poor service and bad water.

TUD bought the troubled system, set up surcharges most customers were happy to pay and began making long-overdue improvements.

TUD has more than 12,000 customers of its own and has no obligation to help other county water companies or customers that have found themselves in a predicament.

That it has, however, speaks well for the district's administration and board and reflects an exemplary sense of community.

Del Oro also deserves kudos. After Conlin-Strawberry Water Co.'s bleak reign, the Chico firm has brought an open, welcome approach to Strawberry. Earlier this month, in fact, Del Oro threw a picnic for its customers.

Their response? "We've been welcomed with open arms," said Aguiar.

And, at least so far, deservedly so.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Executive Editor Teresa Chebuhar, Managing Editor, news Craig Cassidy and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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