Finding ways to use water more efficiently and continuing conservation are faster, less expensive alternatives to bolster Tuolumne County's future supply than seeking water rights or building dams, according to some of the area's leading experts at a symposium held Thursday night at the Sonora High School auditorium.

About 200 people attended the two-hour discussion, which focused on how to better manage the county's water system.

John Mills, one of the state's top water advisers and a member of the California Emergency Drought Task Force, said trying to erect costly dams or wage political battles over water rights aren't the best solutions for such a small area.

"Just understand the political power that's out there," Mills warned. "It's going to be a long, long war and you're not going to like where you end up."

The drought felt across California has been magnified in Tuolumne County due to the lack of a reliable water supply. Despite plenty of streams, rivers and lakes, none of the area's agencies hold any rights to that water.

San Joaquin Valley water districts, the City and County of San Francisco, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation collectively hold the rights to the lion's share of water in the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.

Meanwhile, Tuolumne Utilities District and Groveland Community Services District receive water under contract and deliver it to their customers.

Mills said the process to file for "area-of-origin" water rights would likely take 10 or more years, with no guarantee of securing the desired amount in the end. He also said the regulatory requirements to build a new dam would take just as long and cost up to $700 per acre foot of water gained.

The county could learn from communities in Southern California that are doing everything possible to capture, store and reuse water, Mills said. One example he cited was a requirement for developers to use permeable materials when paving surfaces such as driveways, sidewalks and parking lots.

Unlike concrete and asphalt, permeable surfaces capture rainwater for reuse and replenish groundwater.

"When a water drop hits in Tuolumne County, we've got to slow it down, spread it out and get it back in the ground," Mills said.

Patrick Koepele, acting executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, said there's no "silver bullet" to fixing the problem and will require "multiple tools" to address.

Restoring meadows on national forest land would improve the health of streams and rivers and increase groundwater recharge, Koepele said.

"If you apply this across the Sierra Nevada, it can add up to some real significant water savings and benefits," he said.

Area leaders have been trying to address the problem in recent years through the Integrated Regional Water Management process.

The state created the integrated process in 2002 to help agencies cooperatively manage regional water resources. A total of 48 regional groups made up for various public water interests have been formed throughout the state.

All of the panelists at Thursday's event either participated directly or work for an agency that took part in creating the Tuolumne-Stanislaus Integrated Regional Water Management Plan.

The plan outlined a number of projects desired by each entity involved in the group, which includes Tuolumne Utilities District, Groveland Community Services District, Tuolumne County Resource Conservation District, Tuolumne River Trust, Calaveras County Water District, Twain Harte Community Services District and the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California.

For the complete story, see the March 14-16, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat.