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Supporting TUD Joining YSS

Supporting TUD Joining YSS To Mitigate the Threat of Fire and Support Forest and Watershed Health

All of us in Tuolumne County live under the very real threat of imminent catastrophic fire. Tuolumne County was recently listed as the number one county at risk of wildfire by the California Department of Insurance’s “Availability and Affordability of Coverage for Wildfire Loss in Residential Property Insurance in the Wildland-Urban Interface”. As a result, all of us are paying higher insurance rates, if you can get fire insurance at all for your home and property.

Bottom Line: The trend of wildfires in California is increasing with larger, hotter fires that produce catastrophic damage to life and property. This is in large part due to the overabundance of trees and ladder fuels (brush) that have been allowed to accumulate in our forest. Mismanagement combined with an increased population in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and coupled with climatic variations, puts us all at great risk. Because of the imminent threat of catastrophic fire in our community, the Tuolumne Utilities District (TUD) is taking every responsible measure to collaborate with federal, state, local government and other organizations to protect our watershed and water supply infrastructure.

Several recent and catastrophic fires are worth mentioning: The RIM Fire was a massive wildfire that started August 17, 2013 in a remote canyon in the Stanislaus National Forest spanning portions of Tuolumne and Mariposa counties. With a burn area of over 250,000 acres and at a cost of over $127-million (in 2013 dollars), along with over 100-structures destroyed, it was fortunate that only 10-people were injured. Paradise was not so fortunate. Now known as the deadliest fire in California history, the Paradise Camp Fire, which began on November 8, 2018, suffered 85 fatalities (and counting) over a burned area of 153,336 acres.

The King Fire that began El Dorado County in the fall of 2014 also burned an area of nearly 100,000 acres. The stripped landscape allowed 330,000 tons of topsoil to erode from mountains into Placer County Water Agency’s three nearby reservoirs used for water supply and hydrogeneration. While damage to infrastructure is critically important, it can never be compared to the tragic deaths associated with the Camp Fire. Nevertheless, the King Fire demonstrate the need for water agencies to collaborate and take action to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in their area of responsibility.

A key focus of our TUD Strategic Plan is watershed and forest resiliency and recently, the TUD Board directed staff to become a participating member of the Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions (YSS). YSS was founded in 2010 to help increase the pace and scale of forest restoration efforts on the Stanislaus National Forest, as well as adjacent Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and private lands.

At its inception, YSS had approximately 30 different stakeholders that have remained active participants in our forest restoration collaborative. YSS has gained statewide and national

recognition for its ability to find common ground in areas that, in the past, have remained mired in controversy. Working closely with its membership and public and private partners, YSS has been instrumental in moving forest management projects off the drawing board and onto the ground. The mission for YSS is: “To restore and maintain healthy forests and watersheds, fire-safe communities, and sustain local economies using a science-based approach.”

The YSS Charter lists 10 different focus areas where it strives to maintain a diverse range of interests. One of these focus areas is “Water Quality and Quantity.” The relationship between healthy forests and water quality and quantity, although very well established, remains an area where YSS could use additional support and expertise. TUD and its staff have that expertise and will collaborate well in that capacity. In return, TUD will stay well-engaged and informed with what’s being planned in the Stanislaus Forest watershed, which is so important to our County and TUD’s year-to-year water yields, security, and quality.

There is no cost to join YSS. While membership is open, individuals or groups joining YSS must formally commit to uphold the spirit and guidelines of the YSS Charter which are in line with our TUD goals as well. The YSS Charter says this about new membership: “New members may participate in decision-making after attending one meeting and committing to understanding the information being analyzed, as well as previous collaborative discussions.” New members are encouraged to attend the majority of meetings each calendar year or to send an alternate.

Unfortunately, this proven successful organization and the reputation of TUD became mired in politics and misinformation as the TUD Board considered becoming a participating member in YSS. Per the TUD Strategic Plan, that places a high priority on collaboration, membership in YSS was an extension of this priority to reduce our community’s fire risk and protect water security and quality for Tuolumne County. Instead, the discussion was sidetracked with a letter writing campaign and an additional board meeting for an issue that on its surface made reasonable sense and should have been a unanimous board decision at the first board meeting. Directors Barbara Balen and Ron Ringen should have been supportive of this decision without rallying a bunch of baseless rhetoric and a repetitive letter to the editor campaign to try to undermine a very viable collaboration serving our community. The threat of catastrophic fire is real and represents an “all hands-on deck” approach for all of us to mitigate. As previously stated, it’s taken years of neglect and mismanagement to get to our current very real fire threat level and it will take years of collaborative efforts, both publicly and privately, to work our way back to a healthy forest and watershed. Stating that other organizations exists to mitigate this threat or that TUD should focus on the PG&E water rights acquisition does not show an understanding of the big picture. TUD’s technical knowledge should be part of the YSS collaborative effort to find innovative solutions for sustainable watershed protection for all to benefit from and enjoy. Let’s work together to make this happen and leave the political games behind.

Bob Rucker