One would think a mountain community would be flush with water, spewing forth from mountain streams, fed by snowmelt and splashing into lakes and reservoirs.
Not so in Tuolumne County, where a third dry year in a row spells disaster in the making. With no water rights to the rivers and lakes that supply other water districts for valley consumers, we county residents watch as our three main sources of water – Pinecrest Lake, Lyons Reservoir and Phoenix Lake – diminish.
Attending a Tuolumne Utilities District board meeting, I was struck by how difficult an issue this is to attempt to manage. Decisions on what measures to employ to conserve water; when to implement them, for how long, and any penalties for noncompliance must be made. At what unknown point in the future will we, as residents and customers, no longer be under mandatory water restrictions?
The five-member board of directors, with recently installed general manager Tom Scesa, took up most of the evening meeting haggling over the wording and placement of paragraph points in the board’s attempt to implement “Phase Three” of their plan. It concerns what is and is not allowed as far as water use. It was apparent to those in attendance that semantics, definitions and intent were still a struggle. When the meeting was opened for public comment, one ratepayer chastised the board for unprofessionalism for not following rules of order in the conducting its business.
With an estimated 44,000 customers, TUD has not had to face such water restrictions in the past. But the word is getting out, albeit slowly, to residents that this is serious. TUD is just implementing a mail notice, besides inserts that appear in the bimonthly water bills advising customers to cut their usage by 50 percent – something else the board has struggled to determine how to get compliance and yet be fair to households, businesses and agriculture.
The board is revising its earlier estimate of available water after the recent rain, saying it will be 120 to 150 days before we run out of water. A proposed purchase of water from the South San Joaquin Irrigation District is being pursued, though it might not be enough. There are plans to explore pumping more groundwater from wells not used in recent history. There is talk of adding new storage capacity, but this will take time and money – both of which are in short supply.
So while the water district grapples with the Herculean task of stretching our supply out until the next rainy season – assuming we have a “next” rainy season – those of us getting on board in the spirit of the moment are encouraged to bring a bucket into the shower to capture water for use elsewhere; to flush toilets a little less; and to forget hosing off the family car.
Consider it an adventure and challenge. But it might become the new normal. Complacency is so yesterday.
Kirkbride lives in Twain Harte and writes about Mother Lode and Sierra matters. Send comments to email@example.com.