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Tuolumne County Ditch System


Few people realize that the California Dream began with the diverting of water during the Gold Rush.  It was water that allowed miners to reduce the landscape around Columbia to the ghost-white fields of limestone that are seen today.  The story of water development in Tuolumne County is colored by rivalry, technology, and a thirst for dreams from this era.  In the early 1850s, Yankee engineers scouted the Sierra for suitable rivers and possible conveyance routes to carry the water through rugged terrain to the gold fields below.  The result was a well-engineered system of flumes, ditches, and canals at two percent grade.  All totaled, over 250 miles of hand-dug ditches distributed water to all corners of the county.  Today, about 50 miles of this remarkable system are still in use by the Tuolumne Utilities District (TUD) service areas. 

History and Background

            After the first discovery of gold in Tuolumne County at Woods Creek near present day Jamestown in the summer of 1848, camps sprang up throughout the foothills.  A steady supply of water was searched for in various areas near the major rivers, resulting in diverting and transporting water primarily for mining purposes. 

            The first water company incorporated in 1852 was named Tuolumne County Water Company (TCWC).  It started in Columbia and tapped water from the South Fork of the Stanislaus River.  A competing company, Columbia and Stanislaus River Company (CSRWC), was formed in 1854, tapping water from the Main Fork of the Stanislaus River.  The CSRWC was formed because the miners were being charged exorbitantly high rates for water usage by the TCWC.  Water disputes were very common during the last half of the 1800s, which led to fighting and murder in some cases.  An excerpt from the journal of William H. Brewer, scientist with the Whitney’s Geological Survey of California, illustrates this colorful event:Sonora, like Columbia, is a mining town…and there are several other mining villages very near–all owing to the rich placers of the region.  Water for washing this dirt is brought from the Stanislaus River, over and through a very rough country, in a ditch over sixty miles long!  And here is a Californian history.  A ditch supplied water, but the miners thought the water rates entirely too high, so they would build an opposition ditch.  It was estimated to cost $300,000; they built it, but it cost over one and a half million, or over five times the estimated cost.  It was scarcely finished before it was sold at mortgage sale for $150,000, and bought in by the old company, the one that this was to run opposition to, so both fell into the same hands.  It was destroyed the winter of 1861-1862 by the high water.”  (From Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer).

            With the general exodus from the county after the placers became exhausted, many of the ditches were abandoned; but the mining lodes later attracted attention and new laterals were dug to supply the quartz mines, many of which were rich producers into the 1950s.  The present system was united into one organization from the properties of a number of separate and independent companies, which ceased to operate after selling their water rights and canals to the Sierra and San Francisco Power Company. 

            Later, new requirements for water included agricultural ventures and ranching, as well as residential growth.  Many of the apple ranches in the county got their first irrigation from abandoned ditches.  In the early 1900s, the predecessor of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) acquired the Tuolumne Ditch System from the Tuolumne County Water and Electric Power Company, whose predecessors had absorbed and acquired numerous properties and systems of other water companies and ditches in the county.  

            Efforts to develop water storage and facilities to provide for increased generation of hydroelectricity led to the completion of the new Strawberry Reservoir by PG&E in 1916 and the enlargement of Lyons Reservoir in 1930.  In 1983, the portion of the ditch system providing water to the county, known as the Tuolumne Water System, was sold to Tuolumne County by PG&E; it later consolidated with the Tuolumne Regional Water District.  In 1992,  Phoenix Lake and most of the ditch assets were transferred to the newly formed Tuolumne Utilities District (TUD).  

            Meanwhile, in south Tuolumne County, the Golden Rock Water Company (GRWC) had its inception in 1855, claiming water from the South Fork of the Tuolumne River.  The company began putting segments of open ditches in 1859 and built the “Big Gap Flume,” a 2,200-foot-long wooden suspension flume to carry water over what is today Buck Meadows.  The Sugar Pine wooden sections and wire cable were supported by a number of towers.  The towers were built at intervals, the highest being 265 feet.  The system served Garrotes 1 and 2 (today Groveland) and Big Oak Flat.  In 1868, the elevated flume was destroyed in a storm.  Andrew Rocca acquired controlling interest in the GRWC and repaired the system.  During 1917 to 1923, the City and County of San Francisco owned the property.  The GRWC was used to supply water for the Hetch Hetchy rail line and for fire protection in Groveland.  In 1942 the system was no longer needed and was allowed to fall into disrepair.  In 1965, the Hetch Hetchy project began supplying water to South County’s Groveland Community Service District by tapping into the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct.

  Current Features

            The Acts of Congress of 1866 and 1870 gave recognition to water rights developed by diversion and usage on public land and established the right of easement for the purpose of operation, maintenance, inspection, and to repair piping of some ditches.  Currently there are 50 miles of ditch canals and flumes and ditch trails.  Due to private property issues, some trails are off-limits, while other property owners welcome hikers.  The Main Canal owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company continues to function as a recreation trail for hiking and is stocked by the Department of Fish and Game for fishing. 

 How to Get There—GPS Coordinates:  N38° 01.88' W120° 23.40'

            Many ditches are adjacent to private property; however you can visit the ditch near San Diego Reservoir at Columbia College, 11600 Columbia College Drive (off Highway 49), Sonora, California.

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