Installing draft points to use untreated water that flows throughout Tuolumne County for fighting fires is an idea that’s been looked at for many years, but the Twain Harte Community Services District is the first to put one into service.

The district installed a draft point at its Shadybrook Reservoir in May at a cost of about $10,000, of which about $6,500 was spent on the environmental permitting process.

District Fire Chief Todd McNeal, who proposed the project, said the draft point will allow firefighters to pull raw water from the reservoir during an emergency and take pressure off the treated-water system.

“Fire hydrants are all tapped into treated water,” he said. “That’s just how systems have evolved in our country for a long time.”

McNeal said drawing large amounts of treated water from fire hydrants can put the system’s infrastructure at risk of damage, especially in locations where the infrastructure is dated and fatigued.

Depleting the supply of treated water could also hinder post-fire recovery efforts.

“If you’ve damaged your system or depleted your reserves, you’ll have a harder time recovering from that incident,” he said.

The draft point also allows tanker trucks to refill faster than fire hydrants, McNeal added.

Three trucks each holding up to 500 gallons of water can refill at the draft point at the same time within two to three minutes and go back to the incident, which McNeal said is less than the time it would typically take for the same number to refill at a single fire hydrant.

“Think about a pit stop at a NASCAR race,” he said. “People are waiting for the engine to arrive and have three fill hoses already charged and ready. They don’t have to get out and do it themselves.”

The project was one component of the district’s efforts to improve the resiliency of its water supply since the drought from 2012 to 2017, which at one point required it to cut domestic water use in half.

McNeal said he’s “100 percent” in support of installing such draft points throughout the county, which doesn’t mean that fire hydrants would no longer be used.

“You’re just adding another layer of options,” he said. “The more options and selections we have, the better we can make decisions and hopefully slow the progression and reduce the overall damage from the incident.”

Barbara Balen and Ron Ringen, members of the Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors, have both long advocated for installing draft points at strategic points along TUD’s 70-mile open ditch system that conveys raw water from Lyons Reservoir.

Balen put together a 12-minute video last month talking about the benefits of installing draft points along the ditch, which is available for viewing on Access Tuolumne’s YouTube page.

“The entire TUD system is essentially 70 miles of fire hydrant,” she said in the video.

Jim Maddox, a retired state and Fish and Game wildlife biologist, said in a Union Democrat article published on Dec. 16, 2017, that people looked at the ditch system as a source of water for fighting fires more than 25 years ago.

Maddox said the county has running water in locations most other places do not, because the Tuolumne Main Canal ditches and other parts of the system are at higher elevations than creeks and other canyon-bottom streams.

Some stretches of the ditches are near ridge-tops, while others are designed to traverse ridges to convey water from one distinct watershed to another.

The issue has caused tension between some TUD board members and fire officials, which essentially boils down to who should pay for the draft points.

Ringen wrote a letter that was published in The Union Democrat on May 8 that criticized Josh White, chief of Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, and several unnamed elected county supervisors for being “adamantly against” the draft points.

Bob Rucker, president of the TUD board, wrote an op-ed published on May 25 rebuking Ringen for “insults and misrepresentation of certain public officials who work hard to protect our community.”

“The Tuolumne Utilities District is a supportive partner of Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and Cal Fire Unit Chief Josh White in the area of fire mitigation and response for the community,” Rucker wrote.

White says the county fire department, which the county contracts Cal Fire to manage and staff, doesn’t have money for the draft points. He also believes the responsibility for them lies with the water district.

Ringen argues paying for the draft points would be an illegal use of the district’s funds and open it up to lawsuits because it’s a public utility that’s in the business of providing clean and safe drinking water to ratepayers — not firefighting.

“Josh White doesn’t want to hear anything about it,” Ringen said. “He wants new fire trucks.”

White said he supports the concept of draft points along the ditch system, but didn’t deny that he would rather spend any additional money available on replacing old fire apparatus.

The county fire department is facing a $500,000 budget deficit in the next fiscal year, in addition to between $5.4 million and $7.5 million to replace 12 out of 42 fire engines and water tenders that are at least 25 years old.

“To say the fire department is more interested in buying fire engines than putting in draft points, then my critics are absolutely correct,” White said. “I’m absolutely concerned about buying more fire engines.”

Another concern of White’s is the cost of maintaining the draft points, which would be spread out across the 2,200 square miles that the department covers.

White said it’s his understanding that water suppliers are responsible for putting in fire hydrants and wasn’t aware of any other fire departments that do that.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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