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Our View: Collaboration, urgency key to canal repairs

Our View
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Ironic that in a year of record snowfall and drenching rains, Auburn and Placer County face a water emergency larger than any drought in recent memory. What’s worse is the response saying it will be at least two months before there is a solution for an agricultural community looking at $10 million or more in losses and for a high-fire risk community that is rightfully worried about dried up fields. Averting a crisis that Placer County Water Agency officials have called potentially “catastrophic” will take a total team effort of utilities, government and residents who need to work fast and hard. The Sierra foothills consist of steep, remote canyons lined by towering pine trees and dense underbrush. Landslides are fairly common, especially after pounding winter rains and snow leave the earth saturated, like this past season. Unfortunately, Pacific Gas & Electric’s Bear River Canal runs along one of these slopes. On April 19, a section of the hillside gave way, taking the concrete canal with it. Downstream water alarms alerted PG&E, which shut down the canal — but not before water, rushing at 90 percent of the canal capacity, washed out a 40-foot section of the hill and the slope below it. The last two weeks have been a painful time of worry and concern for farmers, ranchers and residents. The canal is a primary source of water for 150,000 PCWA customers, including 4,000 irrigation customers who use the canal’s raw water for crops, cattle, landscaping and nurseries. While PG&E was quick to notice to the canal rupture, the utility appeared to be dragging its feet on immediate and long-term repair plans, first indicating that emergency work wouldn’t start for weeks and a permanent fix could take months. As more information revealed the severity of the situation, PG&E continued to reason that the slide’s remote and unstable location was keeping engineers and technicians from assessing a fix and repair schedule. PCWA and the public rightfully cried out for a better answer. On Tuesday, PCWA board chairman Lowell Jarvis told the utility that unless it moved faster the canal break’s impacts on “150,000 water users, their property, their livelihoods, their businesses and their livestock will be dire if not catastrophic.” PG&E felt the prod. An emergency repair plan was finally announced Thursday. Concrete stabilization is scheduled to start early next week on the slope, but temporary pipe detours will not be working until the beginning of June and a permanent fix isn’t expected until the end of June. The utility giant must work harder to do everything it can to get the workable temporary fix running as soon as possible while it works hastily on its permanent solution. Not only is the loss of agricultural revenue a concern, so is the potential for higher fire risk in a county where residents have seen their fair share of devastating blazes. Fire officials and large landowners are worried about the increasing number of dried up fields as a result of the shortage. We are, too. At the county level, work is being done and needs to aggressively continue on several fronts — forestry, agriculture and residential — to have a state of emergency declared. Agricultural losses alone have been estimated at $10 million. A state of emergency would allow PG&E to fix the canal within relaxed environmental regulations, and provide the county with financial assistance for farmers and growers adversely affected by the water shortage. This kind of cooperation combined with a strong sense of urgency is needed among all parties to put such necessary solutions in place. We also question the long-term integrity of the canal system. PG&E has been delayed in repairs to the damaged section because of inadequate vehicle access. How many other sections are in the same condition, possibly vulnerable to the same fate? As PG&E and PCWA collaborate on the 50-year renewal of the federal license for the Middle Fork hydroelectric network, canal maintenance and repair should be scrutinized. Visual inspections, on foot, might not provide the scientific and engineering study needed to project future maintenance needs. As for PCWA water customers, patience and conservation must win the day. Pay close attention to announced water outages and do your part to conserve as much as possible until the canal is back to capacity. Warmer weather is on the way. While residents conserve, agency and government officials must move as quickly as possible to get the Bear River Canal repaired and functioning. We don’t have time — or water — to waste. ----------------------- Water-saving steps you can take • Use a broom, not a hose to clear driveways, sidewalks or patios. • Water landscaping only between midnight and 8 a.m. to avoid the hottest part of the day. • Avoid operating your irrigation system on windy days. • Turn off sprinkler systems when rain is expected, and use a moisture meter to measure water need. • Run your dishwasher and washing machine only when full. • Fix toilet and faucet leaks. • Replace older toilets with new high-efficiency models. • Install new efficient showerheads and faucet aerators.