PG&E and TUD power and water

The Tuolumne main canal runs along Old Oak Ranch Road on Big Hill.

Emergency curtailments on water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watersheds, approved Tuesday by the State Water Board and pending further approval, are reverberating upstream in the Stanislaus and Tuolumne river watersheds, but will have no immediate impact on Tuolumne Utilities District’s water supply for now, TUD administrators said Wednesday.

“With climate change-induced drought reducing water levels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to alarming lows, the State Water Resources Control Board today approved an emergency curtailment regulation with measures to preserve stored water to protect drinking water supplies, prevent salinity intrusion and minimize impacts to fisheries and the environment,” the State Water Board said in a news release Tuesday.

The county’s largest water purveyor will not be impacted by the emergency curtailment and has been working with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to monitor and manage the situation for several weeks, said TUD Interim General Manager Don Perkins and spokeswoman Lisa Westbrook in a joint statement.

Nearly all of the water that TUD relies upon to supply some 40,000 county residents is stored in Pinecrest and Lyons reservoirs, where PG&E holds the senior rights to the water that flows into each from South Fork Stanislaus River.

Some of PG&E’s storage water rights on the South Fork Stanislaus River are included in the State Water Board curtailment measure, Westbrook said. It’s important to note that through these water rights, water was diverted to storage, as part of the normal operations of the system, before curtailment measures were approved.

Therefore, TUD water already in storage at Pinecrest and Lyons reservoirs now can be used normally, Westbrook said. Pinecrest was holding 16,679 acre-feet, or 88% of capacity, while Lyons was holding 2,770 acre-feet, or 50% of capacity, as of Wednesday.

“The fact that these curtailment orders have been put in place is another indicator of just how dry conditions are this year,” Westbrook said. “TUD will continue to monitor this emergency measure.”

In addition, Westbrook said the State Water Board’s emergency curtailment measures do not have any effect on TUD's ongoing efforts to acquire PG&E water rights.

Nevertheless, the emergency curtailment measures, which could impact 5,700 of the 6,600 total water-rights holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watersheds, underscore why TUD wants to acquire PG&E’s senior water rights in the South Fork Stanislaus watershed. The district currently doesn’t have rights to a single drop of as much as 5.6 million acre-feet of water that leaves Tuolumne County annually, roughly equivalent to 280 years worth of the amount that TUD customers currently use each year.

Junior water rights holders are in line behind senior water rights holders when the state imposes restrictions on water use in specific watersheds, though the most senior water rights holders remain first in line.

Jeff Kerns, a TUD board member, deferred questions about how the State Water Board’s action could affect TUD to Perkins, but he and his family also own and operate Cold Springs Water Co., a privately-held public utility that provides water to more than 500 connections in the community of Cold Springs and the Peter Pan subdivision.

“Our water system is a junior water right holder, post-1914. We’ve already been curtailed in June,” he said. “We were allowed to apply for, and we were granted, an emergency exemption for health and safety reasons to continue to divert. The exemption came with heavy restrictions on water use.”

Kerns agreed that the water rights PG&E owns on the South Fork Stanislaus River are the most senior rights in that watershed, and that’s why he believes it’s imperative that TUD successfully acquires those water rights.

Emergency curtailments on water use approved Tuesday by the State Water Board must also be OK’d by the California Office of Administrative Law and filed with the Secretary of State before they become effective and curtailment orders can be issued.

“The middle of August to the second part of August, we anticipate the regulation will become effective,” Jackie Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the State Water Board, said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Then we go out and issue orders, to as many as 5,700 users.”

Mark Mesesan, a spokesman for PG&E, noted the same need for approval of the State Water Board’s emergency regulation before it takes effect.

“PG&E is a diligent steward of water resources alongside key stakeholders in each of the regions where we have hydro projects,” he said. “PG&E has been conserving water in its reservoirs so hydropower will still be available during peak demand periods of summer and fall.”

The company planned ahead, Mesesan said, generating less hydropower than usual this spring so it could store water in its reservoirs for generating electricity during summer peak demand periods.

“PG&E also sought state permission to close spill gates sooner at certain dams to capture more runoff during the spring of 2021,” he said. 

Mesesan also said PG&E is working with regulatory agencies and other stakeholders to take steps to prolong availability of water for downstream users’ needs.

The utility analyzes reservoir and stream conditions and works with stakeholders to seek variances to release less water from dams, Mesesan said. Reduced flows allow retention of water for use later in the year while preserving environmental values in affected streams.

Farther downstream in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watersheds, water agencies that tap into the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers are not happy with the State Water Board’s decision.

Steve Knell, general manager for Oakdale Irrigation District, said Wednesday that OID has enough stored water this year to meet the needs of its growers and not have any impacts from the State Water Board’s action.

But it’s six years since the last drought, Knell said, and that’s “six years of opportunity, time to correct their failures from the last drought, and for six years they’ve done nothing. The State Water Board’s failure to act over those six years is what now creates an emergency for us all. This is just a head-shaker for the inaction of our state officials when it comes to water.”

Peter M. Rietkerk, general manager for South San Joaquin Irrigation District, said Wednesday, “Regardless of curtailment, we do believe we have sufficient supplies to make it through the remainder of the water year.”

Rietkerk said SSJID administrators do have significant concerns about the state board’s curtailment actions, the underlying authority of the state water board to issue curtailments to senior water rights holders, and board actions in the fall that could limit opportunities to store water during a severe drought period.

Formed in 1909, Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District are among the oldest irrigation districts in the state. 

The districts together completed the first Melones Dam and Reservoir in 1926 and since 1957 have co-owned the Tri-Dam Project, which today has dams, reservoirs, and other infrastructure above and below New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River.

Valerie Kincaid is an attorney for the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, a coalition of water agencies that tap the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers, including Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District, the City and County of San Francisco, Merced Irrigation District, OID and SSJID. She recently sent a seven-page letter to the State Water Board on its draft regulations.

San Joaquin Tributaries Authority shares the State Water Board’s concerns about the drought conditions currently affecting the state,” Kincaid said in her letter for the water districts and agencies. “The SJTA believes that appropriate enforcement of existing water laws is essential to protecting the state’s water supplies. However, the draft regulations fail to accomplish the stated mission of enforcing the water right priority system and instead include provisions that are unlawful and outside the authority provided to the State Water Board. The regulations cannot be adopted as proposed.”

Kincaid and the agencies she represents contend the board’s draft regulations will improperly codify deficient methodology for evaluating water unavailability in the Delta watershed. She says the methodology uses outdated demand data, potentially inaccurate supply projections, and unverified claims of water right priority.

In Tuolumne County, TUD administrators said Wednesday they recognize the current exceptionally dry conditions and emphasized how they recently urged TUD customers to practice water efficiency this summer in a July 20 news release.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.