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Tuolumne County Water

The Tuolumne Utility District (TUD) Board elections are unusually important this election. The drought has focused attention on water rights and availability throughout the State creating the potential for significant changes in the near future with regard to water rights, groundwater regulation and water access. Recent research has also shed new light on the extended historical climatic picture commanding a fresh look at what we should consider to be normal weather patterns going forward. In addition to dealing in this dynamic State water environment, the new Board will choose the next TUD General Manager. This individual will lead the TUD staff going forward for the foreseeable future. That individual will exert influence on the direction that water planning takes for the largest segment of our County for some time.

We should be proud of what we accomplished in response to this drought. It was necessary that we took the actions we did and the community response was amazing – 51% conservation in June and July. But at what cost? Water is not just about turning on taps, flushing toilets and watering landscapes. A majority of our water is consumed in businesses, industries and fire suppression. Water to agricultural users was cut off and the message we sent to potential tourists was not a good one and certainly impacted visitation. Our water purveyors lost over 50% of their revenue during that time — revenue that is still needed to do work necessary to deliver water to their customers in a safe and reliable manner. The work necessary to maintain the infrastructure did not decrease and their routine workload actually increased as they implemented workaround solutions necessary to maintain water and sewer services. Only a small fraction of the lost revenue will be recovered through emergency services.

As we work to fully understand the impacts to our county economy that this drought has caused, we need to learn from this experience and begin to implement policies and actions necessary to bring our water and sewer systems in line with the County’s needs in the future — a future which most climate experts believe will be significantly different than the past. If we fail to do that we consign ourselves to a future that increasingly often will look like the year we are going through now.

We talk about this 3 year drought. In reality we are in a 14 year drought. During that period we have had only 2 years which the State Water Board classifies as “wet” and 1 other which they classify as “normal”. The remaining 11 have either been classified as “dry” or, like this year, “critically dry”. Studies show our recorded historical climate experience (the 1800s and 1900s) was in fact the wettest and coolest period of time in the previous hundreds of centuries. Historically, droughts lasting 100+ years were experienced many times. What we have considered normal is really a 2 century long pleasant aberration. In the future, we may face frequent periods of drought and the length and severity of these may increase as time goes on.

Imagine secure access to our sole source of water, Pinecrest Lake, without needing to implement emergency rationing to justify a variance in Lake level from the State. Imagine having access to other water sources to reduce our reliance on Pinecrest Lake especially if we cannot secure acceptable access to its water. Imagine having sufficient storage to compensate for decreasing snow pack and changing nature of precipitation from snow to rain. We need to be able to capture the water when it comes to us so we can save it for when we need it most later in the year. Imagine wiser and more widespread stewardship of our water resources through reasonable conservation. We need to remember that while conservation is important we cannot conserve to zero and we should save extreme conservation as a last ditch response to the worst of times. If extreme conservation is how we solve our normal problems we will have no flexibility to deal with future emergencies. Imagine increased efficiencies and security in our architecture, infrastructure and services ensuring sustainable viability in the future. Some of this will require up-front investment but will pay huge dividends down the road. The simple truth is that a failure to invest in our future is a sure path to future failure. To make these kinds of efforts affordable for our people, we need to explore innovative ways to increase revenue.

These are not simple tasks but much of it is achievable if we support the right minds and start now to identify innovative and necessary solutions to our difficult challenges and begin working together to implement them over time. We need leaders who are not wedded to the thinking of the past but who understand the need to adapt our planning to address the changing realities. The rest of the State is out of the starting blocks investing in infrastructure and buying up water. We need to keep up or condemn ourselves to a future of more frequent and potentially longer and more severe periods of extreme conservation. Educate yourself on all, not just your favorite issues and vote wisely. The stakes have never been greater.