Politics & Government

State, Tuolomne Utilities District battle over Pinecrest Lake

WASHINGTON -- The Sierra Nevada's popular Pinecrest Lake is roiled in a dispute over water and power.

State officials have one idea about managing the lake; the Tuolumne Utilities District has another. Now, with potential lawsuits looming and federal regulators waiting, lawmakers are starting to weigh in.

"It's very important to have a utility district that can operate and provide services to its customers," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, said Tuesday

Pinecrest Lake is the most public part of the Spring Gap-Stanislaus Project, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. hydropower complex located within the Stanislaus National Forest. The project license is currently up for renewal by federal regulators, a painfully complicated process in the best of times.

But the Tuolumne Utilities District, now joined by Radanovich, complains conditions imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board could threaten future water supplies. The water board wants to even out the flow of water from Pinecrest, while maintaining levels high enough for recreation use. Potentially, these goals conflict with the utility district's supply needs.

"The (plan will) impose an unjustified and arbitrary reservoir elevation that disrupts and curtails the longstanding domestic water supply that has been the principal source of (the Tuolomne Utilities District's) water," utility district attorney Jesse Barton declared in writing.

The state water board, though, insists more control is needed over Pinecrest releases. For the first time, the water board would set a target elevation of 5,610 feet for the Pinecrest Lake level.

"The current license ... has few restrictions on the timing and shaping of water supply," federal regulators noted in a key environmental study, whereas consistently "maintaining lake levels ... would extend the recreational season and therefore increase recreational opportunities."

So now, Radanovich and the utility district are flexing their muscles on both coasts.

In a phone call Monday, and subsequent letter, Radanovich urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to delay relicensing until the Tuolumne Utility District's concerns are mollified. In Sacramento, tellingly citing a desire to "avoid the burden and expense of duplicative litigation," the utility district and state water board have agreed to stay out of court at least until the water board reconsiders its earlier plan.

A FERC official told Radanovich on Monday that the agency would take seriously the request to postpone licensing while the dispute is resolved. In theory, the agency might have issued another license at any time.

PG&E filed its Spring Gap-Stanislaus renewal application in December 2002. Federal licensing for hydropower projects take a long time, cost a lot of money and involve many tradeoffs. For instance, the state is requiring PG&E to construct a fish screen at the entrance to the Stanislaus Power Tunnel. The utility also will have to pay $20,000 for state officials to stock Pinecrest Lake with fish.

The five-member water board signed off on the proposal last month, including a plan for regulating water flows and lake levels. The highly detailed, 23-page plan specifying how much water flows, and when, was then sent to Washington.

The Spring Gap-Stanislaus Project is on the middle and south forks of the Stanislaus River, near the mountain town of Strawberry. All told, the hydroelectric project generates an average of 415,000 megawatt hours annually.