Two Tuolumne Utilities District directors Wednesday debated whether the district should renege on a board decision not to do any more piping or cement lining of Tuolumne County's historic open ditches until a comprehensive study of the waterways is completed.

At issue is a 1,600-foot-long section of the Algerine Ditch, south of Jamestown on private property owned by Ron Gianelli.

During a TUD Ditch Committee meeting Wednesday, Gianelli told TUD directors Louise Giersch and Judy Delbon he wants to plant several acres of wine grapes on his land this spring. He wants to pipe the section of ditch used primarily for west county agriculture to make more space for the vines. He speculated he's losing about an acre of planting land because of setbacks from the ditch.

Gianelli offered to provide the labor for the project if TUD would provide the pipe.

But TUD directors last year agreed that, until their ditch study is completed, the district would only pipe or gunite ditches when it is absolutely necessary for maintenance reasons such as leaks.

The ditches first built in the mid-1800s by miners. TUD now manages 56 miles of the open waterways west of Long Barn. Valued for drinking water, wildlife habitat and recreation, they have become the center of controversy in recent years as merits of piping and guniting have been considered.

Most of the controversy has centered on higher-elevation ditches, such as the Columbia Ditch.

The "Ditch Optimization Study," with a $500,000 budget, is expected to be completed sometime next year. The study is intended to identify the best way to manage the ditches for drinking water while still protecting other features valued by the public.

Director Delbon acknowledged the board's previous commitment not to undertake any significant work on the ditches until the study was completed and said she was concerned about such action.

However, Director Giersch said she thought the district could "make an exception" for what she called a "win-win" situation.