New watershed fire-prevention fee for water customers in Placer County's future?

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Could Placer County Water Agency users soon be paying an extra charge on their bills for clearing brush and protecting the upstream watershed against fire and erosion? It’s a question that the Tahoe National Forest’s top ranger gave an opportunity for leaders of government and private industry to ponder during a workshop on the watershed in Auburn. Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn told a gathering of about 120 people in Auburn on Thursday that the U.S. Forest Service view of water as a “non-market resource” has shifted. There’s a new move toward considering non-traditional values that can be attached to watershed – from its role as a wildlife habitat to its impact on climate change to providing water for a plethora of downstream users, Quinn said. But Quinn said that funding for programs to protect and preserve the forested watershed against fire is “grossly inadequate.” Making reference to a program already in place in Santa Fe, N.M. that targets users at the end of the tap with fees, Quinn said water providers could tap into a source of revenue that could greatly aid efforts upstream to prevent fire and erosion. “A minor investment now on water bills might just prevent economic and social costs later,” Quinn said. Other speakers weighed in on a variety of aspects of watershed management. An estimated 65 of California’s water demands are served by the Sierra Nevada. Brett Storey, a senior management analyst for Placer County outlined ongoing efforts to establish a biomass plant in Tahoe and possibly Foresthill that could help turn wood waste into energy and ethanol, an alcohol-based fuel. That would allow removable of the threat of wildfire heavy forest growth poses – but without burning, he said. “Our goal is to protect the environment and your homes for the foreseeable future,” Storey said. Tim Feller, Sierra Pacific Industries district manager, reported on watershed health studies the corporation is undertaking on part of its 150,000 acres of forest – including 25,000 acres in Placer County. The watershed includes snow courses in the Sierra and the lands that provide drainage into tributaries of larger rivers like the North and Middle Forks of the American River. “Water is a big factor in forest economics,” Feller said, noting that modern logging practices have become more sensitive to watershed health. The forum was sponsored by the Placer County Water Agency and moderated by Sierra Nevada Conservancy Executive Director Jim Branham. “Our goal is to foster community understanding of the watershed we all enjoy for living and working here, as well as utilize its bountiful resources,” Breninger said.