Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Faced with lackluster growth and a three-year drought, among other things, Tuolumne County has hired a new law firm to aid it in securing future water supplies.

Sacramento-based Somach, Simmons and Dunn will consult the county on questions related to local water rights, water-related lawsuits, groundwater and other similar issues, according to a contract inked late last month.

The firm will represent the Tuolumne County Water Agency in legal actions, provide written opinions and review water-related contracts, according to the Tuolumne County Office of the County Counsel.

Under the contract, attorney rates will range from $120 to $260 per hour, depending on the services. Nicholas Jacobs and Kanwarjit Dua will be the main attorneys working with the county.

"Water law is a highly specialized area of law that our office doesn't practice," said Sarah Carrillo, the county's chief attorney. "People that do it, that's almost exclusively what they practice."

Jacobs said in December that the county's priorities in the area of water rights looks "ambitious" and "exciting."

The biggest priority includes researching whether and how Tuolumne County could secure and exercise "water rights."

The county and its various water districts currently have few or no legal rights to take water from rivers traversing the county. Rights to draw water from the Stanislaus River are almost exclusively held by the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Tuolumne River is mostly sewn up by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and the City and County of San Francisco.

Tuolumne County's largest water purveyor, Tuolumne Utilities District, gets its water from the Stanislaus watershed under an agreement with water rights holder PG&E.

The district is also exploring whether it can gain some firm rights to water. The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians is also exploring whether it can secure some water rights.

Obtaining water rights - if it's even possible - will likely be a lengthy and expensive process for the county, which mostly stood by as farmers and cities laid claim to the county's rivers prior to WWI.

"The first line of business for them is to give an opinion about water rights - being able to access them, what it takes, what that looks like," Carrillo said of the new law firm.

In May, the Board of Supervisors reinstated its long-dormant Tuolumne County Water Agency and also formed a special separate committee to advise the board on water issues and policies.

Two arid years and state minimum-water-level mandates at Pinecrest Reservoir - where most of TUD's water originates - have created a new sense of urgency.

So has stagnant growth, as TUD is hard-pressed to guaranty water supplies for any new substantial housing or commercial development.

That lack of development is blamed by some observers for the county's flat economic growth and declining population - about 4 percent since 2006. The state's on-going efforts to increase water flows in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta also contributes to the county and TUD's concerns.

From the south, the Delta is fed by the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, including the Kings, Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. The state proposes tunneling water from the north around the delta, which could increase pressure to release more water from those rivers in the south.