February 14, 2014

Farm Beat: Sonora-area water system has vivid history

The Tuolumne Utilities District is looking to the South San Joaquin Irrigation District for emergency water during the drought.

I have no problem with one of our flatland water suppliers helping the Tuolumne Utilities District through the drought.

Back in the mid-1990s, the foothills agency helped me through a little emergency of my own.

I lived along Highway 49 near Columbia and got my landscaping water from TUD. Late one night, a woman accidentally drove her Lincoln through my front fence and broke the water line, creating a gusher outside my living-room window.

I appreciated how quickly a TUD crew shut off the water so I could get the pipe repaired the next day. (I still had well water for inside.)

Now it’s TUD’s turn to ask for help. It could run out of water by May if it does not supplement what is expected to be a short supply from Lyons Reservoir and Pinecrest Lake. The South San Joaquin Irrigation District agreed Tuesday to provide 2,400 acre-feet, to be pumped out of New Melones Reservoir if other approvals are in place.

The cost of $200 per acre-foot would be covered by the Chicken Ranch Band of Me-Wuk Indians, which owns the Chicken Ranch Casino in Jamestown.

The water is just 1 percent of the 225,000 acre-feet that SSJID expects to get from New Melones this year for its farmers around Escalon, Ripon and Manteca.

For TUD, it is vital. The district uses about 17,000 acre-feet in an average year, but customers this year have been asked to cut their demand in half. They can water their landscaping only to the point of “life maintenance.” They can’t hose down driveways or fill swimming pools.

It will been tough for the 44,000 customers of TUD, but that’s nothing new for a water system that dates to the early 1850s. Gold miners from other states and nations quickly realized that the Sierra Nevada has long, dry summers. They built amazing waterworks to carry the snowmelt down to the foothills, in some places via flumes across steep canyons.

Today, TUD has modern water treatment plants supplied by some of the same ditches that the miners dug. The district also supplies untreated water for cattle ranches and smaller rural users.

I immersed myself in all of this as a reporter for the Union Democrat in Sonora. The ditch system totals 57 miles in several branches, winding through old towns, newer subdivisions and open land. Residents have landscaped around it – including one who placed a bed across the babbling brook. Deer, birds and other creatures drink from the ditches, which are about 4 feet across.

To reduce water losses and contamination, some ditch segments have been piped – projects that displeased people who enjoy the open waterways.

The system also is prone to outages. Three years ago, a snowstorm plugged three segments. In 2002, a boulder knocked out the main flume from Lyons, which like Pinecrest is owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Parts of the system froze in 1989.

When I bought my house on an acre in 1993, it came with a contract for half a miner’s inch of water from TUD. The measure, a relic of the Gold Rush, is equal to a constant flow through a 1-square-inch hole in a flume.

That’s a pretty good amount, as I discovered that night when the Lincoln driver presented me with an impromptu water feature. I’m thinking that if the same thing happens in the dry months ahead, the TUD crew will respond even faster.

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