Is another TUD study money down the drain?

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It sounds like something from the late Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece award files:

The Tuolumne Utilities District in two years or so, will have spent about $1 million in local, state and federal funds studying a ditch.

Granted, it's a 55-mile ditch system we're talking about and, granted, those scenic and historic ditches are pretty darn important in these parts. TUD directors have won and lost board seats over proposals to pipe even small parts of the system.

A Union Democrat story headlined "TUD awarded $350K grant for ditch study" may have been welcome news for some readers. For others, however, the story could have brought and eerie, unpleasant feeling of deja vu.

That's because TUD had commissioned a remarkably similar study eight years ago.

Directors then agreed to pay EIP Associates of Sacramento $337,000 to prepare a Ditch Optimization Study. Added costs later pushed the budget beyond a half-million dollars. TUD then ran out of money and the report was never finished.

But, at first, the district board thought the final product would be worth the price. The report, according to a 2001 Union Democrat story, would "identify the best way to manage the 150-year-old ditches for providing quality drinking water while protecting wildlife habitat and historic features valued by the public."

And the new study? "Ultimately this project will result in a management plan which will provide for ditch system improvements to improve water quality, reduce future costs, improve fire protection and access to trails

as well as add water supply for the future of the county," according to a TUD press release.

The latest report is expected to take about two years to complete, and the $350,000 Sierra Nevada Conservancy grant is only part of the total cost. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, said District General Manager Pete Kampa, will kick in about $121,000 and the district itself will chip in some $150,000 more for a total of $620,000.

Add that to the $357,000 already paid EIP and you get $977,000. Divide that by the 55 miles of ditch to be studied and you've got $3 a foot probably a lot more than it cost the miners' water companies to dig them back in the 1850s.

In TUD's defense, Kampa pledges that duplication will be kept to a minimum and the new report will build on information assembled for the Optimization Study. Features will be entered on a new electronic mapping system for which technology did not exist when the first report was commissioned.

Still, two reports cost a lot more than one. Nobody goes into a project planning to commission one expensive study, discontinue it, and then pay for another.

TUD property tax revenues covered most of the Optimization study's costs, and when the state expropriated those revenues during the budget crisis of 2004 and 2005 the report was put on hold. In 2006, directors voted to move ahead with the stalled report.

"It just seems to me that if we don't proceed with this, the public is going to wonder what we're up to," said Director Louise Giersch, who has since left the board.

"We've already spent a pretty good amount of money on this, and it's of more value when it's finished," added Director Jim Costello, who remains in office.

But despite an investment of more than $350,000, the Optimization Study was never finished. Instead a new grant was found and a new study authorized.

And, as Giersch had feared, the public just may be wondering what TUD is up to.

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The Union Democrat
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