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The Treasure of the Sierra Nevada

Authored by, Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors Chair, Kathleen K Haff

Spoiler Alert: It’s Water.

The Board meeting on Tuesday, June 6th, 2023 was an exhaustive exercise in futility. On the agenda was simply keeping OUR County-wide water agency, Tuolumne County Water Agency, alive and functioning. The fact is that this water agency acts on behalf of ALL of the people of this County irrespective of where they live within its boundaries, or what water they use.

Keeping OUR water agency working depended upon about $150,000 in funding out of a total budget of $312M. We needed the renewal of the Tuolumne County’s Water Agency’s contract with John Mills, one of the State’s most premier water experts who happens to live here in Tuolumne County, and approval of the salary for one resource analyst. A $150,000 investment in protecting, managing, and planning for countless millions of dollars in natural resource values. Sounds like a fantastic deal, right?

Well, not to three supervisors who voted no and effectively shut down the forward advancement of OUR public water agency. Those three Board members refused to fund it! You can watch the video on the Water Agency budget for FY 23-24 by going here, for the presentation: and here for the public and Board member comments:

Just 7 months ago, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors agreed 5-0 to fund the then-inactive Tuolumne County Water Agency because of the many water resource challenges and needs facing our County. This water agency was created through a 1969 state legislation known as the Tuolumne County Water Agency Act.

This Act authorizes the Board of the Water Agency with many powers. Here are just a few of them.


  • Function as a political and corporate body with the Board of Supervisors serving as the Board of Directors for the Water Agency
  • Exercise every lawful act necessary for sufficient water availability in Tuolumne County for present and future beneficial use, including, but not limited to irrigation, domestic, fire protection, municipal, commercial, industrial, recreational and all other beneficial uses and purposes
  • Make contracts, employ labor, and anything else necessary to exercise its full purpose and powers
  • Control and or conserve flood and stormwater for beneficial use, including storing water in surface or underground reservoirs
  • Conserve and reclaim water for present and future use within or without the agency
  • Appropriate and acquire water and water rights and import water into the agency
  • Sell, lease or otherwise transfer water to a district within or partially within the agency
  • Contract with the United States under the Federal Reclamation Act (1902) for the acquisition, purchase, extension, operation and maintenance of such works for a water supply, to exercise all powers and rights possessed by irrigation districts set out in the Water Code

These are all important authorities, right? One would think so, but not on Tuesday, June 6th when three Supervisors, said no and effectively shut down OUR County’s water agency. Whose interests were they acting on? Why would they want to stop OUR county’s public water agency from doing the public’s business?

In his presentation, Mr. Mills noted the groundwork that was laid in the last 7 months and highlighted the Strategic Plan Overview we have been operating from in this fiscal year that will help to continue to guide the agency for years to come.

Most of what OUR water agency has been engaged in these last seven months has been meeting with other public water agency partners within and outside of the County to explain what our water agency is, its powers and authorities. We did this to begin creating trustful relationships with each entity that would meet with us. We wanted to see where our common interests were and how the agency could help them, and how we might work together. In water resources, relationship building and mutual trust is critical. All other efforts spring from those relationships, which eventually lead to successful partnerships.

From those meetings, the water agency found areas of common interests and mutual benefit that have helped us develop and outline a strategic five-part mission.

  1. Adding a watershed health component to the County’s already successful forest health and watershed restoration (SERAL/Master Stewardship Agreement) work. The watershed health component would involve partners such as the US Forest Service, in-county and downstream water agencies, UC Merced for research and quantifying water gains, and the Sierra Business Council, to name a few. Grant funding will be pursued from many sources to fund the work. There is a ton of funding out there currently for water projects. California’s water comes mostly from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the regional watershed health in this County has everything to do with the quantity and quality of the water that flows into the San Joaquin River.
  2. Along with Tuolumne Utilities District, that owns Phoenix Lake, only our County’s Water Agency has the necessary authority to help resolve long-term legacy problems associated with land use development and road drainage systems, in the Phoenix Lake area, including its 15,500-acre watershed. Sediments are now filling in the lake, but the source of the problems are upstream. This we would work on to resolve.
  3. Tuolumne County Water Agency has been in the process of creating reinvestment partnerships with federal, state and local agencies for the last 7 months that will also benefit OUR County for the long term, in recognition of the importance of the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Watersheds. These are the two largest tributaries of the San Joaquin River.
  4. The Water Agency will create a Conceptual Strategic Plan (CSP) that, with the help of the County’s water service agencies, identifies issues ranging from repairing and replacing aging human infrastructure, to restoring priority watersheds like the Phoenix Lake watershed, improving storm-water systems to function more effectively and put stormwater to use here in the county, and similar projects. This Strategic Plan will lead to the development of a specific Resource Management Strategies (RMS) report that is needed to seek funding and implement specific projects that will benefit our entire County’s water supply security, resiliency and sustainability. The RMS report will identify and prioritize actions jointly agreed to by the County’s local water supply agencies, to be funded and carried out over a planning horizon of approximately the next 20-30 years. We will collaborate with our public partner agencies to work on and arrive at specific implementation resource management strategies.
  5. OUR water agency will provide legislative, regulatory and related advocacy support for water resources and watershed priorities. Sadly, there has never been a more dangerous time in the history of water policy and law in California as the current time. The water rights system that has protected us for over 150 years is under attack by the state legislature who wants to drastically change our current system and provide for even more centralized control through the State Water Control Board. There are 3 bills currently going through various legislative committees that would put an end to the protections of the water rights priority system security including pre-1914 water rights such as those held by PGE as well as the Area of Origin rights specifically created to protect upstream areas like Tuolumne County.

There is no entity other than OUR Agency, that has the power and legal authority to plan county-wide and strategically for the future, to work on solutions ranging from natural infrastructure such as forests and watersheds, to partnering on human-made infrastructure projects to address countywide needs that benefit the people of this County. These are the primary reasons why California created OUR agency in 1969.

The troubling unanswered question is, why would the County shut down OUR water agency and its ability to do what it is intended to do – to help the people and local water providers of the entire County? Much like the MSA agreement, we aim to do this by working together on mutually agreed upon projects to achieve a secure water supply and watershed health in our forests. Is $150,000 too much to spend? What, you may wonder, is worth more to our county than water?

On June 6th the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors by a 3-2 vote did not see fit to continue a $32,500 contract with John Mills. Mr. Mills has offered again this year to work pro bono on this effort and donate almost 80% of his hourly billing rate to help our water agency succeed. The water agency also asked for $118, 500 a year for a resources analyst to support this important work, including, but not limited to applying for grants.

Keeping in mind what is at stake for the County’s future regarding water, the Board’s decision was not only fiscally impossible to defend, it also shut down the Tuolumne County Water Agency before it had even completed its first year.

Further, our County’s Water Agency is not a threat to any other local water agency, or any other public, private or tribal entity. That is a fact, not an opinion. There are entities within our County that did not take us up on our offer to meet, for whatever reason. If they have reason to believe the water agency is a threat to them, I suggest they come talk to me or the other Board member involved in the water agency, Anaiah Kirk, to hash out their falsely held perceptions. I can guarantee you that the water agency’s efforts are and have been carried out in a transparent manner, consistent with State law. How do I know? Because I have been there, every step of the way.

There may be one final way to save OUR Water Agency. If we get at least one Board member to take another look at what the Tuolumne County Water Agency has done in the last 7 months and what it is planning to do, and why this is so vitally important, this item will be placed on the June 13th Board agenda for reconsideration by the full board.

If you feel as strongly as I do that OUR public water agency is of paramount importance to all of the people of this County, and we are able to place this on the agenda for next week, I implore you to be there to lend your voice of support for the Tuolumne County Water Agency. If you can’t attend this meeting, or if the item does not get placed on the agenda for next Tuesday’s meeting, please call or email the three Supervisors who voted against funding our County’s Water Agency.

Like the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the treasure of the Sierra Nevada is not gold. It is the water. If we do not forge through now, after so many failed attempts in the County’s history since 1969 to establish an active and vital water agency that benefits the entire county, it is on us, for not speaking out loud and clear, that this is a primary goal for the health and well-being of all those who reside here.