Lyons Dam

An undated photo of Lyons Dam provided by TUD.

Four of five elected Tuolumne Utilities District board members heard a water supply update Tuesday in the context of the ongoing drought and discussed a possible campaign to push for water conservation, but ultimately took no action.

All of Tuolumne County — including the South Fork Stanislaus watershed that TUD relies on for snowpack and runoff — is already in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The upper northeast section of the county, which includes the Tuolumne River watershed, is in the most dire category, exceptional drought.

Historic records show both Pinecrest and Lyons drop below target storage levels — 5,610 feet elevation at Pinecrest and 1,500 acre-feet at Lyons — at and after Labor Day, “under dry conditions like we are experiencing this year,” TUD staff said in a report prepared for the meeting that was held Tuesday morning via Zoom.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. owns and operates Pinecrest Reservoir, which TUD relies on for 90% of its water customers’ needs. A PG&E proposed drawdown curve forecasts Pinecrest will drop to 5,607 feet in elevation, 3 feet lower than the mandated target, before Labor Day. The district will receive supplemental water from Pinecrest before Labor Day, according to TUD. The U.S. Forest Service and State Water Resources Control Board have already approved PG&E’s 2021 proposed drawdown curve for the reservoir.

Although Lyons Reservoir is currently at 79% of capacity, hydrology models indicate it “will be at a lower than optimal water level by the end of August,” TUD staff said.

In their report, TUD staff urged customers to:

• use irrigation water during evening hours and early morning hours, 7 p.m. and 9 a.m., in that order;

• make sure to check irrigation systems for leaks and make repairs; 

• adjust sprinklers to avoid runoff; 

• replace older sprinklers with high-efficiency rotary nozzles to improve sprinkler systems’ water efficiency by 30%; 

• and fix toilet leaks, which can save a home 200 gallons of water per day.

“If our customers make small conscious changes to reduce their water use now, it will alleviate the impacts of potentially decreased water levels and water quality this summer at Lyons Reservoir,” TUD staff said in their report, which was prepared by Don Perkins, TUD’s interim general manager; Glen Nunnelley, a TUD senior engineer; and Lisa Westbrook, TUD’s community affairs specialist.

TUD board members Barbara Balen, Ron Ringen, Jeff Kerns and David Boatright talked about water supply, water conservation and water storage for a time. Board member Lisa Murphy was absent.

“We’re going into unknown climate territory,” Balen said during the discussion. “It’s pretty dry out there. When you water, you see it evaporate before it hits the ground.”

Nunnelley responded to a conservation question from Boatright by stating TUD customers have reduced water usage to 139 gallons per capita since 2013, a benchmark year preceding one of the driest water years in decades, 2014-15, when the Central Sierra received 19 inches of precipitation. 

So far in the current water year that started Oct. 1, the region that includes the Stanislaus and Tuolumne river watersheds has received 18.3 inches, 47% of average for the date July 13.

Nunnelley said TUD customers’ per capita water usage is well below the target of reducing water use by 20% compared to 2013.

“TUD customers have made water conservation a way of life — water demands have decreased over the last decade,” Perkins, Nunnelley, and Westbrook said in their staff report. “Asking TUD customers to cut back even further on the water they use could have significant economic impacts for some and increase homeowners fire hazard risk on their properties by letting their landscaping die (again).”

Balen suggested placing a pie chart on TUD customers’ bills to show how much water they are using and/or conserving.

John Buckley, executive director for the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, said during public comment that conservation is by far more cost-effective than expanding existing reservoirs or building another dam and reservoir.

Buckley also disputed TUD staff’s claim that asking customers to cut back even further on water they use could have significant economic impacts and increase fire hazard risks on ratepayers’ properties.

Both claims are exaggerations and reflections of looking for reasons not to ask customers to use less water, rather than being consistent with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request that all Californians use 15% less water or even less in this dry water year, Buckley said.

The TUD board agenda packet on Tuesday indicates 100% of Tuolumne County is identified as being in extreme drought and 38% of the county is identified as being in exceptional drought. Buckley said it’s an ethical responsibility for the TUD board to communicate the severity of the current drought.

Perkins said that while he respects Buckley’s experience observing TUD over the decades since it was formed in 1992 with approval of Tuolumne County voters, he felt Buckley was seemingly dismissing the efforts customers have made to conserve in recent years.

“To mandate conservation today is irresponsible,” Perkins said to Buckley.

Buckley said in a Zoom chat message to everyone in the meeting that he “did not urge mandatory conservation.”

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