TUD should be commended for courageous stand

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You may have wondered, after reading The Union Democrat's Oct. 30 story on a proposed $20 million Lyons Reservoir-to-Twain Harte pipeline, if someone was pulling a Halloween trick.

Could it be true? Is the Tuolumne Utilities District board really slamming the brakes on a multi-million dollar project that its staff has been studying for the better part of six years? And is the district really willing to kiss a $10 million state grant goodbye in the process? And send back about $400,000 in federal funds as well?

Perhaps most preposterously, were the directors actually doing this because they were concerned that the district could not afford it and the burden on ratepayers would be too much?

The answer to all these questions is yes, and the TUD board should be commended for taking what is a courageous stand.

Projects like the Lyons-Twain Harte pipeline tend to assume lives of their own after incubating in government offices for years. As staff hours and paperwork accumulate, such projects become harder and harder to stop.

Add millions of dollars in "free" state and federal grants, and they become bureaucratic juggernauts that defy efforts to slow or change them. The Twain Harte pipeline, district directors had thankfully realized, was also becoming a prohibitively expensive project.

Yes, proceeds from a 2002 California water bond issue would have paid for half the project's estimated $20 million cost. A $390,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency would have covered half the project's environmental work.

Trouble is, that still left $10 million for TUD ratepayers to absorb. Spread over 20 years and paid back at 4.5 percent, said TUD General Manager Pete Kampa, this would amount to $543,000 annually and would add about $50 to the average customer's yearly water bill.

But that's not the end of the story: Pipeline costs would likely increase substantially by time construction began. If they rose to $30 million, which TUD Director Ralph Retherford thought was probable, ratepayer costs would double. Adds Kampa, customers will also be asked to pay their fair share of other improvements planned by the district, such as consolidation of small water treatment plants and legally required sewer plant improvements.

Collectively, the increases would hit hard.

"The board is very concerned about the expense and is looking out for the interests of our customer base," said TUD Director Barbara Balen.

To their credit, directors are now looking for ways to salvage some of the grant money and use it for more inexpensive and efficient projects.

TUD applied for the pipeline money under a state bond act section earmarked for making water supplies safer and more secure. The district's water now runs from Lyons Reservoir to Twain Harte in PG&E-owned ditches and flumes that are vulnerable to damage from ice, snow, wind, mudslides, fire, vandalism and even terrorism.

"This ditch is just as vulnerable as the levees in the delta," observed one state official during the funding review process.

But in more than 100 years of service, the few ditch breaks and collapses that have occurred have never resulted in water outages of more than two or three days. At present PG&E handles all repairs at no cost to the district.

So does TUD really want to take out a $20 million insurance policy against the catastrophic, long-term outage it has avoided for more than a century?

Directors have decided that the answer is probably no. Although they have not slammed the door completely on the pipeline, board members are initiating talks with state and federal officials to explore using grant funds for fencing, clearing around the ditch perimeter, tree and boulder removal, flume construction improvements and formulation of disaster prevention and emergency response plans.

Kampa points out that such steps could make the ditch-and-flume system safer and more secure at a fraction of the pipeline's estimated cost.

This logic was not lost on TUD directors and, we hope, will be convincing to state and federal officials. After all, the cash they dole out comes from us taxpayers as well.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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