Tahoe-Truckee utility districts urging residents to be smart when flushing | SierraSun.com

Tahoe-Truckee utility districts urging residents to be smart when flushing

Josh Staab
jstaab@sierrasun.com

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — You know how it goes: That moment as the water in the toilet rises beyond its normal level, and the panic fills your heart just as quickly.

And then in a calamitous crescendo, it spills onto the bathroom floor.

Now, what happens when the reason for that clog had nothing to do with you, but is the result of someone who lives down the street?

That message lies at the core of a collective message from regional sewer collection agencies, including the North Tahoe and Tahoe City public utility districts, Truckee Sanitary District, Tahoe Truckee Sanitation Agency, and Squaw Valley Public Service District.

It's more of a call to action to the districts' customers, and the message is simple: Keep things that don't belong in your toilet out of said toilet.

That means anything from paper towels, napkins, sanitary products, and hair and finger nail clippings — even items marketed as "flushable."

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"Although many products are marketed as 'flushable,' they are anything but," said Kurt Althof, community information administrator with TCPUD.

Althof is mainly talking about damp wipes, typically used to clean up after a baby.

Where toilet paper breaks down quickly as it is designed to do, things like tissues, baby wipes, cotton balls and swabs are not, and can cause sewer pipes to clog up.

"We're all kind of connected through our sewer system; what one neighbor puts down their pipe could effectively block yours," Althof said. "Maybe it won't impact you, but it might get stuck in your neighbor's or go down stream and mess up the collection service."

The issue isn't specific to toilets, either, Althof said. Grease and cooking oils can harden when poured down sink drains, further clogging pipes.

Regionally, districts address more than 30 "clog" related issues in the sewer system every year, requiring maintenance action, Althof said.

"Such maintenance actions are sometimes resolved as part of regular maintenance schedules and protocol, but many are over and above and can require additional costs of $1,500 to $5,000 per incident," he said.

Occasional issues can require capital purchases of $50,000 and beyond, Althof added.

Personal home damage occurs less often, averaging one or two incidents per year, with costs ranging from $5,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the backup and the value of the home, based on an averaged cost per incident within the TCPUD, NTPUD and TSD.

"Lastly, but certainly not least, is the potential environmental damage such as a sewer spill that gets into the Lake (Tahoe)," Althof said. "It's hard to even put a dollar amount on that, but the cleanup alone would be very costly, and the potential damage to the tourism economy that might result could be very significant."

For example — while not related to the wrong things being flushed down toilets — on July 2005, a spill of about 56,000 gallons of sewage into Lake Tahoe resulted in $700,000 worth of fines to Kings Beach property owners, and a $325,000 penalty to the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The spill was reportedly a result of a punctured sewage line caused by a worker with the Tahoe City-based contracting firm Pacific Built.

Also, in 2011, NTPUD officials estimated at least 61,000 gallons, if not more, of raw sewage seeped from a Tahoe City manhole following a December storm that knocked out power to the district's main generator.

At the time, the utility district was subject to fines of $10,000, with an additional $10 per gallon in excess of 1,000 gallons.

Ask the experts

Have questions about your toilet or other sewage-related matters? Contact your local agency:

North Tahoe Public Utility District: Serves from the California state line in Crystal Bay to Dollar Hill, ntpud.org

Tahoe City Public Utility District: Serves from Dollar Hill to Emerald Bay and from Tahoe City to Squaw Valley Road, tahoecitypud.org

Truckee Sanitary District: Serves Truckee and the Donner Lake area, truckeesan.org

Squaw Valley Public Service District: Serves Olympic Valley, svpsd.org

Tahoe Truckee Sanitation Agency: Provides wastewater treatment to the grater Truckee-Tahoe region, ttsa.us