Pacific Gas & Electric contract workers are installing fences at a popular fishing area off South Fork Road on the Tuolumne Main Canal ditch-flume system, which many locals refer to simply as “the ditch.”

But people who live near the Tuolumne Main Canal and walk it on a regular basis do not like the fencing. They say it is unsightly and it’s overkill intended to protect people from something that happened to one person.

The utility owns the ditch-flume system, which dates to the Gold Rush era, and conveys water from the South Fork Stanislaus River watershed and Lyons Reservoir, and helps generate power as part of the Phoenix Hydroelectric Project.

Tuolumne Utilities District has access to the water in the ditch, which is the source of water for 95 percent of TUD’s municipal demands, and it is the only source of water for eight TUD water treatment plants, according to TUD. But PG&E owns the ditch-flume structure known as the Tuolumne Main Canal, and it owns the water rights.

The move to put in fencing at the South Fork Road location next to the ditch comes five months since a 74-year-old woman fell into the unfenced ditch. A bystander jumped in, started mouth-to-mouth, and helped get her out. The Sheriff’s Office called the man who rescued the woman a hero.

Spokespersons for PG&E say the fencing is being installed to improve public safety, not to restrict fishing. PG&E began a campaign to improve public safety on other parts of PG&E’s hydroelectric system, in other watersheds in other counties, installing fencing and signs a couple of years ago, Paul Moreno, of PG&E corporate relations, said Tuesday.

On Monday, Jim Roth was walking his dogs, a shepherd named Rosie and a hound named Lila. Roth said he moved up to Twain Harte in 1972 and he’s been walking the ditch ever since.

“I’ve been here forever and I’ve been walking the ditch forever,” Roth said Monday. “Mary Decker Slaney used to train on the ditch here.”

He was talking about the retired American middle-distance runner who set multiple world records and became the first woman in history to break 4 minutes 20 seconds in the mile. She also famously collided with competitor Zola Budd of Great Britain, and fell in the 3000-meter race at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Asked about the fencing, Roth said, “It’s absolutely useless. Looks ugly. How are you supposed to fish over this? It’s an eyesore. An abomination.”

Arlene Moyer was walking her dog, a female Siberian husky named Snow, and asked, “What are they doing to our ditch? I’ve been coming here 18 years. Makes me sick. I was going to cuss but I thought better of it. Makes me wanna cry.”

Workers installing fence on Monday said they could not comment for the record, but they were willing to speak to residents and ditch-walkers and answer their questions.

Another resident, Lori Watson, said she lived in Twain Harte in the 1980s and for the past two years, and she’s been walking the ditch every day the past two years. She says she sees people of all ages fishing there at the South Fork Road location, sometimes as many as 50 people fishing, including people in wheelchairs.

Watson says she has relatives with children who used to fish up there 20 years ago. She says people come to plant trout at the South Fork Road location, as often as once a week, from spring through fall.

She says she’s active with the Middle Camp Neighborhood Watch Group, so she heard about the woman who fell into the ditch. A sign stating “DANGER Keep Out of Canals” has since been installed at the South Fork Road location.

“This is a popular fishing spot for children and adults for 50 plus years I have been told, without any mishaps,” Watson said. “This spot is planted with trout regularly. . . . The company installing this fence, contracted by PG&E, stated it will be four foot high on both sides and they will be installing in other areas along the ditch. How can anyone ever enjoy this beautiful spot where children and adults have fished for years?”

Watson says the South Fork Road location is one of a few areas where handicapped persons have access to fish. She says PG&E never sought input from people who walk the ditch and fish the ditch and live nearby.

PG&E spokespersons said they have not visited the fishing area off South Fork Road on the Tuolumne Main Canal. Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications said Friday PG&E is working to install railing and fencing at the Ditch 4 fishing access site on the Tuolumne Canal.

“The railing and fencing will provide additional protection to the public, while still allowing for fishing,” Merlo said. “Work will begin in mid-November and will last about six weeks. A total of 900 feet of railing and fencing will be installed at various points along the canal.”

Moreno shared a map Tuesday that shows “safety fencing with fishing access.”

Moreno said PG&E is installing the fence for public safety. He said PG&E has fencing and railings at multiple locations, and fencing has been installed in recent years on PG&E infrastructure on Hat Creek in Shasta County, somewhere in the Auburn area, and on the North Fork River near Bass Lake in Madera County.

Although a flume section is already fenced at the South Fork Road location, Moreno emphasized, “The public are not allowed on elevated flumes, we do post signs there.”

Fishing access for the public will continue at the South Fork Road location, Moreno said.

Moreno said he did not know if anyone sued PG&E as a result of the June incident when a woman fell into the ditch.

“We own the facilities, and we’re putting up more signage about staying off and keeping out,” Moreno said. “The public will still get to fish along the canal at this location.”

On Monday at the South Fork Road location, there did not appear to be any signs explaining to the public why fencing is being installed. On Tuesday Moreno said PG&E is creating signs to put up at the South Fork Road location to explain the purpose of the new fencing. PG&E has not held any public meetings about the new fencing to hear from people who use the ditch or live near the ditch, Moreno said.

Asked if the South Fork Road location is the only place where fencing is being installed on the PG&E Tuolumne Main Canal ditch-flume system, or if there are any other locations on the Tuolumne Canal where fencing is being installed, Moreno responded, “Nothing underway or planned at this time.”

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

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