An inauspicious beginning over 150 years ago was the infancy of the present-day Utica Water and Power Authority.
Except during the rainy season and early spring, when gold was first discovered near Murphys in 1848, the diggings were often dry, with not enough water available to wash gold from the gravels. As the miners began to look for sources to provide a year-round supply of water, the Union Water Company formed in 1852 to bring water from Angels Creek and the North Fork Stanislaus River. Ditches and flumes were constructed with picks, shovels, and mules, and eventually a small dam and reservoir were built. Using natural energy a water-powered sawmill was built down from the flume head to produce the lumber for the flumes. The mill actually straddled Sawmill Creek so that the sawdust could easily be disposed of and the lumber could float down the ditch and flumes to the construction sites. Other dams were built and water was guided to Angels Creek and as it followed the natural channel to Murphys a branch continued to Murphys Flat and Red Hill and another branch flowed through Owlsborough near the present day Masonic Hall in Murphys.
That inauspicious beginning over 150 years ago was the infancy of the present-day Utica Power Authority. Called simply the UPA by those who know and rely on its historical water delivery system in the county, this federal hydroelectric project is beset by the many complexities of a growing population at the beginning of the 21 st century just as there were difficulties and hurdles to overcome back in the 1800s.
Early experimentation in hydroelectric power generation was opening new possibilities all around the country. By building a powerhouse in 1895 on Angels Creek in Angels Camp the Utica Company supplied the first electricity to the Utica Mine. That same year another powerhouse was built above Murphys, supplying the mines, mills, and residences of Angels Camp and Calaveras County with their first electricity. This powerhouse was the fourth to be built in California and the eighth to be built west of the Rocky Mountains. Other powerhouses were built or modified and the stone Utica Powerhouse above Murphys had a generator powered by water delivered through a penstock in 1899.
It is the production of power at the Murphys and Angels Camp powerhouses that generate the revenues to maintain the historical water delivery system. The green energy is sold out on the grid allowing this unique piece of Calaveras County history to support itself while delivering water to those living in the U.P.U.D. and City of Angels area and some 14 irrigation users along the way. All repairs and replacements are done in-kind, with the exception of some structural improvements were allowed in replacing the flume destroyed by the 2400 degree heat in the 2001 Darby Fire. The federal project, although long (the water conveyance system is almost 27 miles in length), is not wide. The powerhouse facilities, the flumes, canals, penstocks, and maintenance roads occupy lands owned by the UPA in fee or by virtue of deeded easements and other prescriptive rights of way. The project is not zoned by the county, but the federal boundaries and jurisdiction take precedence over that of the state or of the county..
Utica Power Authority is just one of the many protectors of one of the most precious commodities on earth. Drinking Water Week writes that nearly 97% of the world's water is salty or otherwise undrinkable. Another 2% is locked in ice caps and glaciers. Only 1% can be used for all agricultural, residential, manufacturing, community and personal needs. The battle over water will be fought, just as it is over clean air and food for a world of six billion people, in the political arena and in the marketplace. It has been said that if all the world's water were fit into a gallon jug, the fresh water available for us to use would equal only about one tablespoon. With decreasing snow pack in the Sierras we lose our natural storage. The containment and conveyance of the precious liquid blue gold in Calaveras County becomes almost a sacred duty.