Troubled Waters Part III: Challenges and solutions

By Alex MacLean / The Union Democrat

In the past decade, California's population exploded by 10 percent, and yet Tuolumne County's has been mostly flat.

Tuolumne grew just 1.6 percent between the U.S. censuses in 2000 and 2010, making it among the five slowest growing counties in the state. And by many estimates, the county has actually shrunk 3 percent since then, to the most recent estimate of 54,000 people.

The anemic growth could be the result of well-reported depopulation of rural areas, or a lack of physical space to grow in a county where just 20 percent of the land is in private hands. But many people also blame the lack of a key resource: water.

As documented in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, most of Tuolumne County's populated and economically active areas - Sonora, Jamestown, Twain Harte and Columbia - rely on the Tuolumne Utilities District for water. But TUD is a young organization, formed in 1992, and, in many ways, is ill-equipped to do its job. Consider:

• It relies almost exclusively on a single small watershed, the South Fork Stanislaus River, for almost all the water it supplies customers.

• It has no water rights of its own, instead relying on a contract with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to supply water annually from the South Fork that the utility owns.

• It lacks storage. Almost all the water available to TUD is stored in two reservoirs, Pinecrest and Lyons, and both are owned and operated by PG&E. The dams provide enough water to meet TUD customer needs in an average year, but lack enough space to accommodate growth.

TUD has two other reservoirs - Matelot and Phoenix Lake - but they hold just enough water for about 1,200 households in Sonora and Columbia.

"This drought has finally got us in a bind where it's blatant - our economy is going to go down the toilet," said Ron Ringen, a businessman and former TUD board member who continues tracking county water policies.

"Without water, we are nothing," he said. "We can't attract businesses. No one is going to buy here if you're going to be on 50 percent rationing every year."

For the complete story, see the June 13, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat.

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