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Donner Lake water decision delayed

ANNE GROGAN, Sierra Sun

Donner Lake residents have been waiting seven years to hear they will have drinking water which complies to state standards. And the waiting will continue, at least until the next planning commission meeting to be held April 12.

“Donner Lake through the years has had a system which has drawn water from the lake without filtration,” Del Oro Water Co. Agent Bill Gustafson said. “The fact there hasn’t been a biological crisis at Donner Lake is in fact surprising.”

Some time before the Del Oro Water Co. purchased the Donner Lake Water Co. in 1993, the State Department of Health Services cited the Donner Lake Water Co. for non-compliance with the surface water filtration and disinfection regulations of California.

In 1997, Donner Lake Water Co., a division of the Del Oro Water Co., submitted a conditional use permit application proposing a system-wide series of upgrades intended to bring the system into compliance with state regulations.

Following a public hearing before the zoning administrator, the application was withdrawn in response to staff and public concern, primarily about the highly visible site chosen for the project.

The State Department of Health Services issued a revised compliance order in 1999 which mandated system-wide compliance by December of this year.

In response to the state’s revised compliance order, the Donner Lake Water Co. has submitted a conditional use permit application for a project which includes construction of a water treatment facility on a 29-acre parcel near, but not highly visible from, Donner Lake.

The 29-acre site is located one parcel removed from the north side of Donner Pass Road. An easement is proposed for the parcel adjoining Donner Pass Road, owned by Donner Lake Village Resort, and Del Oro Water Co. is attempting to acquire the land by eminent domain.

“We can take the land, clearly,” Del Oro Attorney Steve Benson told the Truckee Planning Commission during its five-hour and 40-minute March 8 meeting.

Extensive comment was received during the public hearing portion of that meeting.

Juanita Schneider, a 37-year Donner Lake homeowner, said she would like to see the water treatment facility completed rapidly. Schneider said for the past 10 years she has not cooked with or drank the water in her home because of the quantity of dirt in the water. Schneider said the problem became so bad in her home, she recently purchased a hot water heater with a filter. The filter needs to be replaced once a month, she said. Schneider also spoke regarding the proposed new intake valve and its depth.

“I’m not sure 50 feet is a good distance to get MTBE out of the water,” she said.

Schneider then lightened her serious tone.

“I’m very glad to hear they’re going to have a screen on [the intake valve] so the fish can’t get in. Who knows, you could have snakes in the water.”

Nevada County Environmental Health Specialist Kathy Polucha, a Del Oro customer, said that the status of water quantity and quality at Donner Lake is “real bad,” and addressed current Del Oro water treatment procedures.

“Chlorine is marginal at best in treating giardia,” she said. “The water system definitely needs this plant.”

Polucha said Del Oro services 3,000 customers year-round but during peak summer weekends that number can reach 25,000. Many of those users are from out of town and would not receive a boil-water notice if one were issued. The threat to public health is an issue to be considered, she said.

She also said that occasionally heavy use results in the loss of water service. The system then becomes depressurized, drawing dirt, sediment and other matter into the lines. Water drawn into the lines in such a way cannot be treated, she said.

“Our department is in support of this project,” Polucha said. “And I am personally, too.”

Scott Kessler, another Donner Lake resident using Del Oro water, said that his residence loses water service more often than the Fourth of July weekend and suggested that it would be prudent to have a building moratorium on Donner Lake until the water system improvements are made.

Three Donner Lake Village Resort property owners spoke in opposition to the project.

David Miller questioned why Del Oro Water Co. was aggressively trying to acquire Donner Lake Village Resort property for easement access when they owned the parcel adjacent to the property in question.

“They already have an easement on the lake side,” he said.

Miller then referred to the current two-stroke engine “trigger” policy on Donner Lake which would restrict the use of two-stroke engines on Donner Lake should excessively high levels of MTBE be found in the water. Continued use of lake water for consumption will eventually lead to restricted use of personal watercraft and boats on Donner Lake, he said.

“The new treatment doesn’t consider fossil fuel treatment,” Miller added. “Ten years ago we didn’t know about MTBE and we drank the water then.”

Nelson Van Gundy said he would love to see better water at Donner Lake.

“But are we going to do the job right and draw ground water?” Van Gundy said. “Using surface water for public consumption is absolutely ridiculous.”

Mike Sullivan presented to the planning commissioners photos of the 1997 flood and its effects, and said that the flood had passed right through the project site. He also presented a home video taken while traveling through flood waters down Donner Pass Road in the vicinity of the project.

He estimated that water had flowed through the project site at between 700 and 900 feet per minute and said that he at one time considered the American River suitable for rafting when it reached 800 feet per minute. Sullivan said because of the flooding issue he wanted the planning commission to request an environmental impact report for the project.

“I guess in conclusion I’d say this place floods,” he said.

Former Planning Commissioner Don Estabrook agreed with Sullivan that the threat of flooding on the project site is significant and said that placing the water treatment facility below a creek is unwise.

“All it takes is for one tree to fall over and divert the flow,” Estabrook said. “I urge [the planning commission] to not be swayed by the applicant’s request to hurry.”

Ron Hemig spoke on behalf of the Truckee-Donner Public Utility District and responded to several comments suggesting that the PUD supply water to Donner Lake residents.

“The PUD absolutely would like to be a good neighbor,” he said. “We have constraints though. PUD, on the water side, is behind schedule due to area growth. The ability to provide water to Donner Lake is not a possibility at this time. But in the long run, PUD would like to help.”

Bill Gustafson of Del Oro responded to Van Gundy’s comment and cited a 1988 ground water study which showed that the only viable source of water in sufficient capacity for the Donner Lake area is the lake.

He admitted that Del Oro tap water may contain unwanted sediment due to the failing condition of the entire system.

“We have to start somewhere,” Gustafson said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Gustafson took a deep breath before he responded to the MTBE issue.

“Yes,” he said. “You folks will be forced to face this issue down the road. You may be forced to restrict the use of two-strokes.”

There is no known treatment for the presence of MTBE in water, Gustafson said.

The planning commission reviewed the public testimony for about 30 minutes before reaching its decision to continue the review next month.

“I am astonished this has taken this long,” Commissioner Arne Werchick said. “I don’t like being told as a planning commissioner that if I don’t vote on this tonight then Donner Lake residents will become ill. I am troubled by the urgent public health problem put before us. We have to worry that if we make the wrong decision then people on the lake could get sick.”

Both Commissioner Werchick and Commissioner Threshie said they could not agree with staff findings concerning the mitigation measures suggested for the project. Commissioner Tryggvi said she was comfortable with those findings.

“We owe it to the people at Donner Lake not to deny this,” Tryggvi said. “I don’t think denial is a good option.”

Commissioner Richards agreed.

“The consumers need to be serviced with good water as soon as possible,” she said.

Commissioner Owens seconded Werchick’s motion to continue the review process.

Consideration of the Del Oro Water Co.’s conditional use permit application for the construction of a water treatment facility will continue at the 6 p.m. April 12 planning commission meeting, the commission decided. The public hearing portion of the meeting will be limited.


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