75 years later: The TCPUD is born
July 10, 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 first installment.
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — The TCPUD was Tahoe City's first local government. It is still the region's only local government entity, and under the guidance of a lively cast of directors through the years, it has developed a multifaceted water and sewer system, and kindled some controversy, as well.
When the utility district was conceived in the late 1930s, it evolved out of a desire among residents to control their own water. It originally served about 100 homes in the rough town that was just waking up to tourism.
Today, the district handles domestic water delivery, sewer collection and parks and recreation services for between 4,500 and 25,000 users annually, depending on the season. Operating from Dollar Hill to Emerald Bay, it provides water to 4,044 homes and sewer service to 7,540 homes.
For readers who love knowing how things work, this series will be intriguing. For those interested in Tahoe City's upstarts and early superstars, there will be colorful anecdotes.
For those who've never quite "gotten" the PUD, they'll learn a lot more about why things are the way they are. Where does the water come from? What contributes to its costs? Why are parks managed by a utility district? The series will address these questions and more.
The district's 75th anniversary coincides with another big occasion, Tahoe City's 150th anniversary. On Labor Day weekend, both groups will hold an extravaganza of events saluting the past.
On Dec. 12, 1938, when 45 of 52 Tahoe City residents voted to establish the Tahoe City Public Utility District, people were expecting big things for the future.
The building industry was booming, and, according to the Tahoe Tattler newspaper, 20,000 visitors were arriving annually to see the mountain lake.
Ever since the turn of the century when the Duane Bliss family had set railroad track from Truckee and built the Tahoe Tavern hotel south of the Truckee River, the local residents had found domestic water where they could, and most of it had come from natural springs above town.
For a while, the water was stored in two, and later three, 12,000-gallon redwood tanks, and channeled through pipes across what is now the Tahoe City Golf Course, according to district's first general manager, Clarence William "C.W." Vernon. (Vernon's memoir is in the Gatekeeper's Museum, and his oral history is at the University of Nevada, Reno.)
Water pipes snaked along Front Street (now Highway 28) in ditches that had been dug by hand. The pipes passed the town's big pine tree (removed by Caltrans in 1994) and descended to a post office and pier buildings on the lakeshore.
The fledgling system served railroad car barns, a Chinese restaurant and private homes. As new houses were built, new pipes were laid.
In 1901, Tahoe Tavern owners built their own private water system, which included a dam northeast of town at Antone Meadows. Everyone needed more domestic water.
The kickstarter for the new TCPUD was, as one might imagine, controversy. It was rooted in a promise that realtors for the new Bittencourt Subdivision, between Grove and Jack Pine streets, would develop a water source for the properties.
When that water never came through, in 1932 the Bittencourt homeowners made a pact with the Tahoe Tavern to hook into the Tavern's system from Antone Meadows. The homeowners paid for supplies and installation.
But by 1938, four new businessmen had taken over some of the Tavern property and wanted to charge the homeowners for their water use. The owners refused. Paying annual rates was not the original agreement, they said, and they had already covered their obligations by funding the infrastructure.
The standoff escalated when bills from Tahoe Tavern for $18 per year arrived in the mail. Something had to be done. On Dec. 1 the homeowners met in Bill Vernon's home to decide what that would be.
Their solution: to gain control over their own water. The way to do this was to form a public utility district, owned and funded by the people. Within a few weeks, the historic Dec. 12 vote was made. The TCPUD was born.
Board members A.M. "Joe" Henry, Ernest H. Pomin, and C.W. "Bill" Vernon were elected on March 17, 1939. The directors voted Vernon to be both board president and general manager. (Today, it's illegal for employees to hold board positions.) His salary was $40 per month. Board members were paid $3 per meeting. Annual user rates were set at $15.
Right away, there was trouble. According to the Vernon histories, in the spring of 1939, before any new pipes, pump and storage could be built — and a few days before the Fourth of July — the water suddenly dried up in the Bittencourt Tract and in town.
Someone had shut off the Antone Meadows dam valve and sawed off the valve stems. This was a disaster. Plenty of water was needed on hand during the Fourth of July in case of fire. (According to the Tahoe Tattler, festivities were to include two hotel openings, two fireworks exhibits, and two major "nitespot [sic] inaugurals.")
The Tattler guessed the vandalism was the work of "pranksters," but Vernon writes in his memoir that a Tahoe Tavern owner did the damage himself in order to keep water from the Bittencourt Tract.
Since the new district was too young to have any budget for repairs, there was only one thing for the directors to do: They signed a personal $300 note with the Bank of America and used it to rig a new system. By July 3, a fix was in place. The celebrations began.
As the North Shore population swelled, the Tahoe City Public Utility District grew as well. Now it has 70 miles of water lines, 10 ground water wells, 11 storage tanks, six booster pump stations, five elected board members and a $1.6 million water operations budget.
Additional stories this summer will explore how the district has changed, how sewer projects came about, and how parks and recreation became important. The next installment, featuring the first general manager, "Bill Vernon — Superman," will appear in the Sierra Sun on Friday, July 19.
Laura Read has lived in Tahoe City for 22 years and writes for national magazines. Details in this series are from memoirs, oral histories, contemporary interviews and historical documents. The TCPUD invites readers to enter the conversation by sending facts and recollections to Laura@ReadWriteShoot.com.