Boil order lifted for Donner Lake water
It’s taken 18 months, two water system owners and a seemingly never-ending frenzy of negotiations, repairs and legal maneuvering, but as of Friday, the people of Donner Lake no longer had to boil their water to drink it.
The boil water order declared by the California State Department of Health Services in June 2000 in response to unsafe water conditions was lifted Friday, writing the final chapter in a long and bitter struggle to get clean drinking water at Donner Lake.
“As of late Friday we did get a letter from the state Department of Health Services that rescinds the boil water order,” said Peter Holzmeister, general manager of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, which took over management of the Donner Lake water system in May from the previous owners, Donner Lake Water Company, a division of the Del Oro Water Company.
On Tuesday morning, the people of Donner Lake and representatives of the TDPUD gathered for a symbolic victory gesture — they sawed down one of the several “Water Emergency” signs posted around the lake to warn of the boil order.
Many expressed satisfaction that the TDPUD has brought the water system up to state standards so quickly. The TDPUD acquired the Donner Lake water system from Donner Lake Water Co. in May after the previous system owners waived their multiple legal challenges.
“The PUD did in seven months what the Donner Lake Water Co. couldn’t accomplish in seven years,” said Jim Maass, a member of the TDPUD board of directors.
The long effort to improve Donner Lake water had both heroes and villains. Prominent among the heroes are Kathy Polucha-Kessler and Emilie Kashtan, two Donner Lake residents who have donated “thousands of hours” of their time to solving the water crisis.
The two health professionals gathered evidence, rallied lake residents and battled both the Donner Lake Water Co. and state agencies to help get Donner Lake residents safe drinking water.
“I feel really at peace with it all now,” Polucha-Kessler said Tuesday. “I’m glad that this shows that democracy is still possible.”
“As a health professional I felt we needed to do this,” she added.
The Donner Lake water crisis actually has been going on for more than a decade. The pipes and distribution lines of the Donner Lake Water Company were dilapidated and leaking, and some say they had never been replaced. Frequent outages and leaks were common, including a disastrous shutdown of the entire system over Fourth of July weekend in 1999 and again in 2000.
In 1991, engineers determined that Donner Lake’s ground water wells were contaminated by surface water, and that the surface water did not comply with drinking water standards.
On Aug. 13, 1993, the Department of Health Services mandated the Donner Lake Water Company to build a water treatment plant. That plant was still not built by May 2001, when the company lost control of the system to Truckee’s public utility district.
Del Oro’s plans to build the plant were delayed multiple times, until the system reached a crisis point in June 2000. On June 23, the state Department of Health Services cited Del Oro Water Co. for running out of water, and four violations of the California Waterworks Standards.
Soon after, the state declared that under the current system conditions Donner Lake drinking water was unsafe, and declared the water emergency, recommending all residents boil their water before consuming it.
For nearly a year, the fate of Donner Lake water was tied up in legal maneuvering, petitions and red tape. At one point, the Donner Lake Water Co. sued the Town of Truckee.
In April, 87 percent of Donner Lake residents voted to have the Truckee Donner Public Utility District take over the system, in a survey by the TDPUD.
Finally, in May, Del Oro Water Co. withdrew all claims, and the PUD was allowed to take over Donner Lake’s water system.
Since then, TDPUD crews have been busy bringing the decrepit system up to speed.
“We think it’s safe,” Holzmeister said Monday. “It’s been tested, and we’ve made modifications in the system.”
Holzmeister said one major change to the system is improved pipes.
“We have modified the lake intake,” he said. “That lake intake pipe extends further into the lake and deeper into the lake,” thus avoiding contamination.
“It’s deep enough that it’s pulling really high quality water,” he said.
The system is also far less likely to run out of water now, Holzmeister said.
“We have a bigger intake, we have more pump capacity,” he said. “As a result of all that we really can keep this system pressurized.”
But while the boil water order has been lifted and it’s safe for Donner Lake residents to drink up straight from the tap again, there’s still plenty of repairs needed at the lake.
“I would say we may have done about half the work at this point,” Holzmeister said. “At this point we still have a major portion of the system to be rebuilt, which will happen over the next two summers.”
Additional reporting for this story was done by Darin Olde.
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