Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

The Tuolumne Utilities District will move forward on building a water pipeline to connect the Big Hill and Columbia water systems, but it could be the district's only water-related project in the next fiscal year, according to members of the TUD Board of Directors.

The board voted 3-1 Tuesday to approve a $681,000 construction contract with Sonora-based Njirich and Sons for laying down about 7,200 feet of pipe between Columbia and Big Hill. District officials say the connection is among TUD's top water priorities because it will ease demand on the Columbia treatment plant and improve water quality.

The board delayed a vote on the contract during a contentious meeting earlier this month, with directors saying they didn't know if there would be enough money to move forward.

"We realized we have enough," said TUD Board President Michael Sarno, who is also on the district's finance committee that is currently compiling the budget.

"It may be the only project we fund unless we come up with other savings," he said.

District officials have said that projects related to the TUD water system no longer qualify for most of the state loan programsthe district has been able to use in the past for such projects because of TUD's current water rates. The district is in the midst of a push to cut costs, both in operating and capital expenses. Board members - most of whomstarted terms early this year - voted against a scheduled 2.78 percent water rate increase in March and are also looking for considerable cuts in the coming budget.

"It's still a very important project," District Engineer Tom Scesa said of the connection line. "We feel it is a high, high priority."

The vote came in at 3-1, with Director Kent Johnson dissenting.

In other news, the TUD Board of Directors tabled a proposal to assume ownership of a water pipeline to serve a newly built tribal hall at the Chicken Ranch Casino until a future meeting. Lloyd Mathiesen, tribal chairman with the Chicken Ranch Me-Wuk tribe, said both the hall and the water line are constructed. Located behind the casino, Mathiesen said the tribal hall construction was part of a recent string of improvements at the Jamestown property that included upgrades at the gaming center, new parking and improvements to administration.

The tribal hall will serve as a sort of government center for Chicken Ranch Me-Wuk leaders.