The Stanislaus River watershed and its vulnerability to fire should be a top priority for Tuolumne County, a consultant hired to advise the Board of Supervisors on water policy said Tuesday.

“Let’s get out of the brown area and into the green,” said John S. Mills of Columbia, referring to already-burned watersheds in the 2013 Rim Fire scar and the 2015 Butte Fire scar, which together total more than 500 square miles. “The green area is what we need to focus on.”

The unburned, still-green Stanislaus watershed is home to two populated highway corridors and water infrastructure for multiple water agencies, including the flumes and ditches that convey most of the water for Tuolumne Utilities District customers.

“We can’t spend all our time chasing dead trees,” Mills said. “We have to go into existing green forests that are overgrown and start thinning them. That’s where federal, state and local resources need to be focused, protecting the Stanislaus watershed.”

The Board of Supervisors hired Mills in November to do consultant work in the 2016-17 fiscal year that ended a month ago. His contract was not to exceed $59,802.47 through June 30.

“The problem with the Stanislaus watershed is there are two main highway corridors,” Mills said. “If a fire comes up in one of those canyons, you can get firestorms and people can get killed on Highway 4 or Highway 108. Some people might not be able to get out. You can end up with people getting trapped as they try to drive out of their communities.”

Mills emphasized concerns for the Tuolumne Main Canal’s wood-supported flumes and earthen ditches go beyond TUD’s reliance on fire-vulnerable, Gold Rush era technology.

“A bad fire could very easily overwhelm us,” Mills said. “If the flume goes out we still have water at Phoenix Lake but it doesn’t supply water to Columbia. Once that air base runs out of water we lose our initial attack. We have to make sure the air attack base has water.”

Columbia Air Attack personnel respond to fires in an area from Lake Tahoe south to the San Joaquin River watershed and as far west as San Luis Reservoir and Pacheco Pass on the west, Mills said.

“The Stanislaus watershed should be the state's top priority because of the Highway 4 and Highway 108 corridors, all the infrastructure for water, from New Melones to Beardsley and Donnells, and Calaveras Big Trees State Park,” Mills said. “You blow all that up with a 200,000-acre fire and it will be worse than the Rim Fire because all that infrastructure did not burn in the Rim.”

Mills also talked about black carbons and particulate pollution released when wildfires burn in the Mother Lode.

“Black carbons effect people and wildlife,” Mills said. “It’s a public health risk identified by the California Air Resources Board. There's particulate matter in the carbon clouds. Black carbons are the most dangerous for air quality.”

The only way to stop the release of black carbons from wildfires is to improve management of forests so the intensity, frequency and size of fires are reduced, Mills said.

Mills also told the Board of Supervisors they should keep an eye on the Westerman Bill, HR 2936, introduced in June by Republican Congressman Bruce Westerman of Arkansas.

“The Westerman Bill is the first one we’ve seen go beyond a short term time frame,” Mills said. “This one goes out 20 years. You can’t manage forests on a stopwatch. You have to use a multi-year calendar. It gives us time to come up with collaboratively conceived projects, to sit down and work out the nuts and bolts of how to manage these watersheds.”

According to county Administrative Analyst Liz Peterson, Mills developed edits to HR 2936 to include specific language for watershed health projects in the Stanislaus River watershed and he has worked with stakeholders to build support for the legislation.

Tuolumne County has no water rights and it is not a water agency. Protecting the water here is nevertheless a mandate for county leaders. Mills says protecting water in Tuolumne County means protecting the Stanislaus watershed.

“The Stanislaus River canyon has not experienced a large scale fire in many decades,” Mills said in remarks prepared with Supervisor Karl Rodefer and Peterson for a June field trip with Tim Quinn, executive director for the Association of California Water Agencies.

“Should it ignite with the current fuel load conditions Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are likely to experience a fire on the size scale of Rim Fire with the potential to substantially exceed the damage and life loss per acre of the Butte Fire,” Mills said. “In short, a Stanislaus wildfire would contain the worst elements of both the Rim and Butte fires.”

The presentation by Mills required no action from the board.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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