Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

A controversial proposal to pipe a stretch of the local ditch system for a private driveway project still needs a permit before it can move forward.

The Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors approved environmental documents for a project on Tuesday to pipe 80 feet of the Eureka ditch off Tuolumne Road. After a public hearing, the board opted to hold off on granting a permit for the project until neighboring parties work out issues over easements.

Property owner Rick Hennes applied for the permit, which will allow him to realign the driveway to the property. The stretch of ditch across the property is now an open ditch.

Projects related to the county's ditch system are not without controversy, and some residents raised questions about this one. The canal system moves raw water from uphill reservoirs to TUD customers, and is known to be an inefficient system. However, the ditches provide scenic waterways across the county, provide for wildlife habitat and are eligible for the National Registry of Historic Places.

Melvin Ralph, a neighbor of Hennes, raised a number of concerns in a letter to TUD and at the meeting. His attorney, Donald Jageman, suggested the piping project could affect some of the wildlife habitat on Ralph's property, and he also questioned whether the related driveway project will lead to increased traffic.

"There's some real concern about some of the environmental impacts," Jageman said.

Sharon Marovich, chairwoman of the Tuolumne Heritage Committee, also submitted comments to TUD asking how the district will prevent negative cultural effects from piping part of the historic system.

"Piping may alter the integrity of a National Register Eligible Resource," she stated.

According to TUD, Hennes will pay about $850 to a fund for interpretive signing to help maintain the ditch's historical integrity. TUD will maintain a 12.5-foot easement on either side of the pipeline.

In other news, the TUD Board of Directors:

• Continued an ongoing discussion on the district's future water supply as it relates to the ongoing issue over the Pinecrest Lake water level. The State Water Resources Control Board is currently considering a permanent regulation on the elevation at Pinecrest, from which PG&E supplies TUD with water.

The water board held a special meeting last week and is accepting public comments on the lake level. Recreational enthusiasts and environmental interests are asking for tighter lake level restrictions and more water conservation, while TUD is asking for more leeway during dry years to draw down the reservoir to ensure there is a steady and predictable water supply.

TUD General Manager Pete Kampa said district staff and state water board staff will likely stay in contact as the board finalizes regulations, which he said will likely take until at least early 2013.

• Recognized former Finance Director John Barnhart who retired Sept. 29. Barnhart worked full-time for TUD for five years, but he served as the district's independent external auditor for 20 years. He also worked as chief financial officer for the Groveland Community Services District.