Glenshire faces water woes: Arsenic and well problems may lead to PUD taking over
Glenshire Mutual Water Company is stuck between a dry well and a contaminated water supply.
Myriad water problems have led the community-owned water system to make a decision: ask the Truckee Donner Public Utility District to take over the utility or face annual water fees as high as $875 per customer without a guarantee that an adequate supply of water can be maintained.
Just how bad is the water system?
“We are almost at the point where we are over-pumping the aquifer,” said Mark Thomas, general manager of Glenshire Mutual. “We are using the same amount of water that is being recharged and we are seeing a decline in the static water level in our main well.”
Glenshire Mutual is 160,000 gallons short of storage requirements for adequate fire protection. While the utility is currently in its low use season, it is having difficulty replenishing storage volumes because three of its remaining seven usable wells are nearing the end of their useful life.
“On a peak day, if one of our main wells went down, our storage capacity would probably be depleted in a day or a day and a half,” Thomas said.
Glenshire Mutual is not only running out of water, what water they do have is showing increased signs of arsenic contamination.
In a board-authorized survey last summer, five of the utility’s 12 wells exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards for arsenic and were shut down. The utility knew two of its wells violated the allowed 50 parts per billion of arsenic, but it did not know arsenic levels were rising in its remaining wells.
Arsenic, a naturally occurring element common in the bedrock around the Tahoe basin, is a suspected carcinogen. Medical officials disagree on what level of arsenic is acceptable in drinking water, but lowering the level has been at the forefront of federal EPA policy recently.
The Bush administration recently suspended legislation that would lower the allowed quantity of arsenic to 10 parts per billion, but local water officials feel the suspension is temporary, and that the level will still be lowered from its current standard.
Thomas said every Glenshire well has arsenic at about 30 parts per billion. While those levels won’t force the utility to take immediate measures, the threat of federal legislation that may lower the standard could affect the economic outlook of the utility.
“Even if the feds decrease the arsenic level to 20 parts per billion we will still have to increase our treatment facilities,” Thomas said. “To treat each well that exceeds arsenic standards would cost about $350,000.”
Glenshire Mutual lost 40 percent of its well capacity when it shut down five wells last summer. Thomas said Glenshire Mutual had 26 days when demand would have exceeded supply if the five wells had been shut down earlier. “We would have gone to storage supply and we might have had water outages.”
Glenshire Mutual does not have a longstanding history of noncompliance with safe drinking water standards. According to Truckee’s local water purveyor the utility has simply had a bad stroke of luck.
“They have a good system,” said Peter Holzmeister, Truckee Donner PUD general manager. “They have arsenic in their water through no fault of their own.”
The utility charges a depreciation fee in its annual water bill, which is used to defray the cost of bringing new wells on line. The fee is also used for capital improvements associated with maintaining a constant, long term supply of water. Before Glenshire Mutual learned that its aquifer was shrinking and that its entire water system could violate arsenic standards, the depreciation fee was $125 annually.
If Glenshire Mutual customers vote to retain ownership of the company, the depreciation fee will increase to $500 annually and their total water bill will more than double. However, the rates could go even higher if the utility has to drill a new well outside of Glenshire, which is possible since the existing water supply is shrinking.
It would be more expensive for Glenshire Mutual to drill in Martis Valley than for the PUD because they are a smaller company, Thomas said. Glenshire Mutual would have to develop new pump stations, pipelines, the required infrastructure and the environmental review from scratch.
“If we go to arsenic treatment that doesn’t guarantee water supply in the future,” Thomas added.
The 1,331 owners and customers of Glenshire Mutual have to decide what the best course of action may be: vote to forfeit the company to the PUD or pay hefty water bills without a water supply guarantee.
“We are looking at approximately $2 million for PUD to come in and supply us with water from one of their wells,” Thomas said. “It would cap our wells.”
The PUD currently has a well on Glenshire Drive. A water line from their storage tanks in Featherstone could be used to help bring water to the area, Thomas said. “We are still looking at our engineering fixtures to determine what the actual cost will be.”
Thomas added that for the PUD to do a special assessment of the Glenshire area, which is the same type of assessment currently being done for the Donner Lake area, the overall cost would be less because of the economy of scale. For Glenshire Mutual customers, water bills with the PUD would range from $400 to $500 annually as opposed to a proposed $800 to $900 with their current system.
To determine whether or not Glenshire Mutual customers want PUD involvement, the Glenshire Mutual’s board of directors will send a ballot to its constituents by April 4. The ballots will be opened May 5.
The PUD board of directors still has to vote to acquire the failing water system, which isn’t a guarantee.
The PUD, which has been working to acquire the Donner Lake water system, is in the position of adding an additional 2,600 customers to its current customer base.
“Strategically, acquiring these systems makes great sense because it offers us greater economy of scale,” said Ron Hemig, a PUD board member. “We believe we can do a superior job of offering service. We just have to be careful that we understand what the issues and costs are, and we in no way inconvenience our existing customers with such an acquisition.”
The board has authorized Holzmeister to look into the issue, but they haven’t taken any formal action yet.
Meanwhile, water conservation measure are in place for Glenshire Mutual customers.
Two informational meetings on April 9 at 7 p.m. and April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Glenshire Residents Association Clubhouse have been scheduled to provide residents with more information.
“The PUD offers guaranteed water supply, a higher quality water supply, and they are offering better prices than what we can offer now,” Thomas said. “So far I have not received any opposition to PUD involvement.”
For further inquiry contact Mark Thomas at 587-4949.
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This story will be updated as more votes are counted. The results must be certified by Oct. 22.