Weather dry but water supplies called steady

Written by Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat July 17, 2013 12:30 pm

Local water districts don’t anticipate needing to impose mandatory conservation this summer, despite a recent heat wave and water-level restrictions at Pinecrest Reservoir that some claim could affect Tuolumne County’s water supply in the near future.

Tuolumne Utilities District General Manager Pete Kampa credited PG&E’s efforts to divert more water to the district as well as improvements to the county’s raw water ditch system over the past couple years with contributing to the healthy water-supply outlook through the rest of the year.

“We’ve got a full lake at Pinecrest, so enhanced water conservation isn’t necessary,” Kampa said. “We’ve really learned how to dial in the raw water ditch system over the past couple years — and PG&E has been a really good partner.”

PG&E recently powered down its Spring Gap hydroelectric generation plant to help meet TUD’s water needs and comply with state regulations requiring the level at Pinecrest Reservoir be maintained at 5,608 feet elevation between Memorial and Labor days.

This year, PG&E also refrained from “drawing down” the lake around the July 4 weekend — which typically provides about two feet of extra beach for recreation — in order to help comply with the restriction.

However, Kampa said the water-supply forecast won’t be so rosy this time next year if the restriction stays in place.

“It could increase the frequency of mandatory water conservation efforts,” Kampa said. “The big driving factors are when the snow stops, when the heat starts and when the spill ends.”

The district was forced to impose mandatory water conservation late last summer after asking the California State Water Resource Control Board for a one-year reprieve from the 2009 water-level rule.

Over the past couple months, TUD has even made attempts at getting the agency to reconsider its regulation. 

Kampa said roughly 320 form letters protesting the restriction that were distributed in customer bills in May have been returned and sent to the state board, along with about 30 separate letters submitted on behalf of public agencies, businesses and individuals.

Another dry winter followed by a similar heatwave earlier in the season could hasten the “end of spill” — which is when water stops spilling over Pinecrest dam — to as early as Memorial Day next year, Kampa said. The district’s water supply for the year is largely dictated by how quickly this process occurs.

“There would be no way we could keep it at 5,608 feet,” and continue operating as normal if spilling were to stop that early next year and the restriction was still in effect, Kampa said.

According to experts, a third consecutive dry year would affect water districts throughout the state.

“We won’t have the same refill of storage like we saw this year and more urban agencies will start asking their customers to conserve,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate manager with the California Department of Water Resources.

Wet storms in November and December delivered record precipitation throughout the state and staved off a potential drought situation this summer, Jones explained.

“From a statewide perspective, we’ve had two dry years in a row but it’s not a drought yet,” she said, adding, “2012 was the first dry year following a wet year, so we went into it with good water-supply conditions. Those wet months at the end of last year also helped us out even though we had a very dry latter part of the winter from January on.”

Jones said the “big question” now is what happens next year.

“At this point, we should think about actions we need to take in case we have another dry year,” she said. “We know that droughts happen, but they don’t happen all that often. And we just don’t have a way to reliably predict what is going to happen next year.”

Meanwhile, the immediate water-supply forecast in Calaveras County appears to be positive as well, according to Mitch Dion, general manager of Calaveras County Water District, which draws from Spicer Reservoir, White Pines Lake and the Mokelumne River.

“The carryover storage from last year was good enough that the supply is still in pretty good shape,” Dion said, adding that it’s still important to plan ahead for the possibility of another winter with little precipitation.

“We still encourage common sense conservation,” he said. “The more we save, the more we can use next year.”

According to Dion, the district didn’t see a large spike in water use during the recent heat wave and has been able to conserve more-than-usual through the use of recycled water at La Contenta Golf Club in Valley Springs.

“People need to understand that we’re capturing and saving water so that we have a reliable water supply for the future,” he said.

Utica Power Authority, which supplies water to Murphys and Angels Camp, has a certain amount of water allocated to it under contract each year in May. The allocation is dependent on that year’s snowpack, according to UPA General Manager Vern Pyle.

“As far as domestic and irrigation water we have an adequate supply, but it’s the second year its been dry like this,” he said. “If it continues in this fashion then it can be a real issue in the future.” 

Other Mother Lode reservoirs have also been reporting water levels that are lower than average, though it has yet have any impact on recreation in the area.

New Melones Reservoir, which provides water to the Central Valley Project, was at 81 percent of its average capacity this week. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts receive drinking water from Don Pedro Reservoir, which was at 84 percent.

Despite the visibly low level at New Melones, people flocking to the federally managed reservoir for fishing and boating have little to fear, according to Melanie Lewis, owner of Glory Hole Sports.

Lewis said the water would need to drop another 200 feet — it was at 969 feet in elevation Monday — before it affects anyone’s ability to launch a boat from the Tuttletown ramp, which she predicts would require another two consecutive dry years.

It also isn’t low enough to have much of an effect on the movement of the fish, Lewis said.