75 Years: Conflict and consolidation at the Tahoe City PUD
Ryan Summerlin July 26, 2013
EDITOR’S NOTE: In December, the Tahoe City Public Utility District celebrates its 75th anniversary. To honor the milestone, the district and Sierra Sun have partnered on a multi-part story series that will run periodically through Labor Day weekend. This is the third installment. Read part one here, and part two here.
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Water issues trigger conflict all over the world, and things are no different in North Lake Tahoe.
In 2010, home-for-sale signs cluttered Lake Terrace Avenue in the Lake Forest neighborhood of Tahoe City. The market glut was partly related to a crash in the nation’s economy, but in this particular location, it was also keyed to something more basic: the delivery of drinking water.
Since the early 1900s, the Lake Forest domestic supply had been served by a private water company. As that system aged, and state and federal water quality regulations increased, the company did not keep up. By the 2000s, the system had repeatedly failed to meet these regulations. Customers occasionally had to boil water before drinking.
Lake Forest residents clamored for the Tahoe City Public Utility District take over, but the TCPUD and the water company could not agree on a purchase price. When the PUD considered starting Eminent Domain proceedings, debate surged.
Supporters argued that only the TCPUD could provide consistent, clean water. (In 2007, 72 percent of Lake Forest customers petitioned the PUD to take control.) Detractors accused the PUD of “empire building.” Others said government should not put a private company out of business. In 2010, responding to the opinion clash, the district’s board of directors held a public workshop to review the acquisition policy.
They assessed the following facts:
1. Bringing systems into the fold had historic precedent. The TCPUD had acquired 14 systems since 1939, its first year in operation, when it bought Tahoe City Water from the Bittencourt Tract developers. Some mergers happened when developers or homeowners no longer wanted to run their systems; others occurred when water company owners could not afford upgrades.
2. The Environmental Protection Agency and the California Public Utilities Commission were asking small utility districts to save money and improve service by consolidating.
3. The TCPUD could secure outside funding to replace the aging Lake Forest infrastructure, saving the rest of its customers from having to foot the bill.
This and other battles worldwide underscore just how precious water is to human life. Water comprises up to 60 percent of the human body, 70 percent in the skin alone. A person losing 2 percent of body water has trouble doing basic math.
A 5 percent loss causes fever, and a 10 percent loss makes it impossible to move. According to the World Health Organization, 800 million people worldwide have no access to reliable, clean water. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency ensures water safety with more than 90 different standards; an estimated 89 percent of U.S. communities have good drinking water.
Annually, an average 460 million gallons of water move through the TCPUD’s water infrastructure, most of it coming from groundwater wells tapping runoff and snowmelt that has percolated into rock fractures and natural underground basins. On peak days of summer, the PUD handles up to four million gallons of use.
Serving 4,044 customers, the network includes 11 storage tanks, 10 groundwater wells, one lake intake, six booster pump stations and 80 miles of water lines, most of them built by an entity that owned the system before the PUD assumed it.
As the district has acquired small companies that could not meet EPA standards, it has faced new challenges. The systems are not contiguous, and they were built from different materials at different times to different regulations. The PUD is, in effect, five districts in one.
That creates redundancies that the district would like to diminish, says the TCPUD director of utilities, Tony Laliotis. But it is less redundancy than the existence of numerous small independent entities down the West Shore, which together own 16 storage tanks and 18 groundwater wells just to serve 3,500 homes. Those will have their own decisions to make in the future.
The Lake Forest water company battle is probably not the district’s last. It etched some scars in the community, but eventually served 118 homeowners with safe drinking water and fire suppression they could rely on. In 2010, a Placer County judge granted the PUD possession of the network in order to avoid further health risks among customers.
Arbitration then ruled in the PUD’s favor, and the district bought the tanks, pipes and pumps for fair market value, $370,000. The district is now putting the final touches on new pipes and hydrants for the neighborhood, paid for with funding from the California Department of Public Health.
The Lake Terrace properties on the market during the 2009 glut are now sold.
Laura Read is a freelance writer living in Lake Forest.
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