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Old Mining Town Faces More Costly Liquid Gold

Water rates have been unchanged in La Grange since 1927. Now they may rise a hundredfold.

August 10, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

TURLOCK, Calif. — Residents of the tiny former gold mining town of La Grange, who have fought for three years to protect their water rates, are bracing for a hike that could exceed a hundredfold. The fading town of 67 households may be forced to pay water treatment costs for the first time under a judge's recent ruling.

Since 1927, the town's water rates have been $1.50 a month but they are almost certain to rise to about $40 a month in the winter and as much as $159 or more in the summer, when -- officials contend -- monthly use far exceeds that of neighboring towns. The rates are expected to be approved today.

Times have changed since untreated liquid gold flowed into the homes of the thriving mining camp. The dispute, which involves the town's onetime historic right to Tuolumne River water and a 1921 contract guaranteeing delivery of free water for residents' needs, turned into a battle between California's past and present.

It comes at a time when patience is thinning for unfettered water use: Legislation that recently passed the state Assembly would mandate meters, and metered billing, for a host of Central Valley towns, but would apply only to water districts with 3,000 connections or more.

La Grange, whose payments are possibly the lowest in the state, has been caught in a different net. The powerful Turlock Irrigation District, which owns two-thirds of the La Grange domestic water system and operates it, argued in court that the town should pay to defray the steadily growing cost of treatment imposed by heightened water quality standards.

"The [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency], the state and everybody else has changed the laws about how you treat and how you use" water, Larry Weis, the district's general manager, said after a recent hearing on the proposed rate hike. "You can't just waste water anymore."

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson cleared the way for the increase. On June 28, he lifted an injunction that had barred the irrigation district from installing water meters or imposing conservation measures on town residents, many of them retirees on fixed incomes.

Meter installation was complete within weeks. (It was halted in 2001 when an enraged resident called sheriff's deputies.) The water district also banned residents from watering their yards and gardens more than every other day.

The judge issued his findings and lifted the injunction in late June, and his final order is now being drafted. After a hearing today by the Modesto Irrigation District, which owns one-third of the La Grange system, both district boards are expected to approve the hikes. Some La Grange residents plan to continue their fight.

"I believe there's a conspiracy going on here," Grover McCoy, 74, told Turlock water officials. "It's about taking our water rights that we've enjoyed for 156 years."

La Grange thrived on gold mining, attracting thousands of Chinese, French, Irish and Italian immigrants in the late 1880s. Its water ditches and rights to the first water that flows down the Tuolumne River have changed hands several times, most recently in 1921, when the Turlock and Modesto districts acquired them to build the Don Pedro Dam. Still, a contract guaranteed "the right of the inhabitants of the town of La Grange to water for domestic and garden purposes and for the needs of the town."

The town's dredges fell silent in 1948, and La Grange wilted.

Many of those who stayed, however, are fiercely loyal to the town's history, and its early water claims. The water district began charging $1.50 in 1927; then in 1983 quietly drew a town boundary to limit new connections. When the Turlock water board voted in 2001 to install meters and bill for use, the residents revolted. They formed a water committee and hired a Stockton lawyer to prove the water was theirs, free and clear. Among the leaders was McCoy, who worked for the water district for 31 years before retiring.

In a part of the state where disputes often are resolved through conversation, the fight has been painful.

"I came up to La Grange a couple of years ago and brought up an ice chest," a pained board President Phil Short told McCoy as he stood at the hearing room dais. "We were hoping to sit down and talk it through and work it out. We couldn't do it."

McCoy contests district figures showing that La Grange water use far exceeds that of its neighbors and the state average. The use of data from annual "peak" days only drives up the average, he said.

The Turlock Irrigation District, critics add, has been greatly enriched for nearly 80 years by the town's water, which generates hydroelectric power as it cascades down the mountain. La Grange should share in some of those benefits by receiving free treatment of its water, they say.

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