Results possible in January
It won’t be as expensive as initially feared to meet a state deadline for doing a study on how to solve a water supply problem for San Andreas and Mokelumne Hill.
But whether that study can find a resolution to the legal and logistical problems that triggered a ban on any new water connections in those communities is not clear.
Calaveras Public Utility District General Manager Donna Leatherman said this week that it now looks like she can get the required study done by March 1 for about $15,000. Initially, Leatherman had said engineers estimated it might cost $50,000 – an amount the tiny utility district would have difficulty paying.
CPUD is being required to look for a more reliable source after receiving a letter in October from the State Water Resources Control Board. That letter banned the utility from offering water connections to new customers and ordered CPUD to conduct the study.
The drought prompted the state order. Back in late spring, state officials ordered many water agencies and other water-rights holders that have only junior water rights to stop pumping from their sources.
The state grants exceptions for agencies if those junior water sources are absolutely necessary to protect health and safety – ie. to keep toilets flushing and taps flowing in homes. So, it is under the health and safety exception that CPUD still pumps water to existing homes and businesses.
CPUD, however, was one of only a few agencies in the state that, after receiving the curtailment orders in the spring, could not come up with any alternative source that would be more reliable during a drought. That’s why state officials in October ordered CPUD to conduct the study and not to connect any new customers.
The moratorium on new water connections crushes hope for growth in San Andreas. Projects in jeopardy include a proposed Dollar General store that was to have been built on Highway 49 south of town and a small housing project for which curbs, gutters and utility lines had already been installed.
The challenge for CPUD is that it has only so-called “junior” water rights issued after 1914 to the water taken from the South Fork Mokelumne River below Jeff Davis Reservoir that it uses to serve customers in Mokelumne Hill and San Andreas. That’s why state officials ordered CPUD to curtail pumping except for public health and safety.
CPUD does have senior rights issued before 1914 for water from Schaads Reservoir that it could take from the Middle Fork of the Mokelumne River. But a historic ditch that once moved that water from the Middle Fork to the South Fork fell into disrepair, so the utility now has no way to move the water. A study done in 2001 estimated it might cost $6.9 million to build a pipeline on that route.
Although state officials said in November that it might be possible to get state or federal funding to help build such a water line, Leatherman this week did not report making any progress on investigating that possibility. She said that by January, however, she might have a draft of the study on finding a new source.
CPUD provides water service to about 1,900 homes and businesses.
The much smaller Sheep Ranch water system operated by the Calaveras County Water District is also under a state moratorium for making new connections. The Sheep Ranch system has about 50 connections.
In the case of both the CPUD and Sheep Ranch systems, state officials wrote in their letters that “the system does not have legal access to sufficient water to support its customers’ basic human health and safety needs.”