Drought triggers state of emergency in Tuolumne County

jnsbranti@modbee.comFebruary 4, 2014 

Tuolumne County is desperate for water.

Forget washing cars or filling swimming pools. The situation is far worse than that.

Tuolumne’s Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency Tuesday, warning that the drought poses “an imminent threat of disaster” that may “cause widespread harm to people, businesses, property, communities, wildlife and recreation.”

Water supplies are dwindling so drastically that community leaders fear they may not have enough for fighting fires, sawing lumber or accommodating basic household needs.

Tuolumne water districts are reaching out to the Oakdale Irrigation District to help, virtually begging to buy some of the water it has stored in New Melones Reservoir.

Two weeks ago, OID was considering selling perhaps 40,000 acre-feet of water to the Fresno-based Westlands Water District. But community objections nixed that financially lucrative deal last week.

Tuolumne wants to buy 4,000 to 5,000 acre-feet from OID and others with water to spare. So far, neither OID nor anyone else has agreed to a deal.

“We’re asking for a very small quantity of water for life safety,” said Tom Scesa, general manager of the Tuolumne Utilities District, which supplies water to most of the county’s residents. His district has more than 40,000 thirsty customers along the Highway 108 corridor from Jamestown up to Sugar Pine and north to Columbia.

Unfortunately for Tuolumne residents, they have virtually no rights to access any of the water that flows down from the Sierra into the rivers and reservoirs that keep the Northern San Joaquin Valley green.

The New Melones, Don Pedro and Hetch Hetchy reservoirs have a storage capacity of 6 million acre-feet, but Scesa said “we have zero access” to any of that water.

OID and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District get first dibs on Stanislaus River and New Melones water. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts get Tuolumne River and Don Pedro water. San Francisco gets Hetch Hetchy water.

Tuolumne County’s 138 water companies typically make due tapping water from other sources.

“We usually rely on rain and snowfall to fill up Pinecrest Lake and Lyons Reservoir,” Scesa said. “In a normal water year, we use about 17,000 acre-feet of water.”

There’s nothing normal about this year, however, and Scesa fears Tuolumne residents may have only 6,000 acre-feet of water available. That’s 35 percent of what’s typical.

The county’s residents have been ordered to immediately reduce their water usage by 50 percent, but that won’t be enough.

“We’re looking at every crazy option you can imagine to get more water,” said Lisa Westbrook, the Tuolumne Utilities District’s spokeswoman. That includes cranking up water wells that haven’t been pumped in years.

Among the least crazy ideas is buying some of the water stored in New Melones Reservoir, which Scesa said could be transported through ditches to a water treatment facility in Columbia.

Getting water to the historic Gold Rush-era community of Columbia is critical, not just to keep its state park open and homes livable. Scesa said the Columbia Air Attack Base there is key to fighting Sierra forest fires: That’s where the air tankers get filled with water needed to douse flames.

It was particularly busy during last year’s disastrous Rim fire, and there are fears this year’s fire season may be worse because of the dry conditions caused by the drought.

If they can get New Melones water to Columbia, Scesa said other water supplies can be shifted around Tuolumne to meet minimum needs.

One of those needs is to keep logs moist before they go through the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill in Sonora. About 150 jobs depend on that, and on having enough water to create steam for electricity there.

“We’re looking at options,” Sierra Pacific spokesman Mark Pawlicki said. That includes possibly drilling new wells or creating some kind of water recycling system. “There’s always been plenty of water before, so it’s never been a problem in the past.”

If Tuolumne can’t convince OID to sell some of its water, another New Melones option would be to buy from the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

“Right now we don’t have enough water to meet our own growers’ needs,” said Jeff Shields, SSJID’s general manager. He assured his district is sympathetic to Tuolumne’s plight, but unless it starts storming soon, San Joaquin won’t be able to help.

OID general manager Steve Knell said about the same at Tuesday’s OID board meeting. His board, in fact, approved taking steps toward buying land where another deep well could be drilled to pump more groundwater for Oakdale’s irrigation needs.

That’s because New Melones is at only 43 percent of its capacity right now. So neither OID nor SSJID will get as much irrigation water from there as they need this year.

“Everybody’s been waiting for it to rain, but it’s not going to rain enough,” Knell said. “Things are dry out there.”

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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