Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Some Tuolumne Utilities District leaders want to see water from New Melones in local hands.

The district Board of Directors on Tuesday discussed water allocations at the federally managed reservoir and a decades-old agreement that was supposed to allow Tuolumne County to purchase up to 9,000 acre-feet of water a year from the lake.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or the amount used by an average household in a year.

Board members said they want to find a way to pursue that water despite the fact that state and federal agencies now say it is no longer available.

"It's water that we feel is ours, and we want it," said board President Michael Sarno.

New Melones Reservoir holds more than 2 million acre-feet of water used by the federal Bureau of Reclamation for the Central Valley Project. Other water is used by the Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

In 1974, as part of a formal protest process by Tuolumne County water agency at the time against the federal bureau's water rights, the county and Reclamation made an agreement that local water customers could purchase up to 9,000 acre-feet of water annually from New Melones.

According to district General Manager Pete Kampa and the district's attorney, Jesse Barton, state and federal requirements for water levels on the Stanislaus River put in place since that agreement have made it much more difficult to access that water.

Essentially, all the water in New Melones is spoken for, Barton said, because of water-quality rules on the river.

"There's really no water left in New Melones for consumptive uses in the counties of origin," Barton said.

But board members on Tuesday say they want to see TUD try to enforce the agreement, using legal means if necessary. The board will likely hold a closed session in the near future to discuss possible legal strategies.

"The water has a value," said Director Jim Grinnell. "I think they owe us dollars if they can't deliver the water."

The discussion comes as the county's largest water district faces water supply issues district officials say could be tied to state regulations at Pinecrest Lake and pending rules for managing the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed.

TUD currently doesn't have any water rights on the Stanislaus River. The district receives about 17,500 acre-feet of water from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which operates hydroelectric power projects on the Stanislaus River's South Fork. The water is stored in Pinecrest and Lyons reservoirs, owned by PG&E.

District officials have lamented a recent requirement to maintain a minimum lake level at Pinecrest during the summer months, saying it will make water supply unpredictable for TUD. The district is working to change the current requirement, which mandates the lake level be kept at or above 5,608 feet through Labor Day for recreational users.

The regulation is supported by many recreational and environmental advocates, who say TUD needs to fix problems of waste in its water system which includes largely unlined, open ditches and aging infrastructure.