It’s all over: Donner Lake gets PUD water
Emilie Kashtan, Kathy Polucha-Kessler and dozens of Donner Lake residents will soon be able to reclaim their lives.
Del Oro Water Company, owner of the water system that supplies 1,331 Donner Lake homeowners with drinking water, waived legal defense Friday, May 18 to the eminent domain suit filed by Truckee Donner Public Utility District over a frail and broken water system.
Donner Lake Water Company has folded.
Donner Lake residents will soon receive their water from the local PUD.
John Byrne and Juanita and Frank Schneider were among the Donner Lake residents present for the hearing in Nevada County Superior Court Friday, and they were among the appointed committee members of the Donner Lake Homeowners’ Association working to push Donner Lake Water Company out of the area.
While the decision was received quietly, with handshakes, smiles and clenched fists, feelings of anticipation have been bottled and placed by the wayside for many years.
“The evidence is overwhelming that (Del Oro Water Co.) has failed to provide any upgrading or modernization of the system … (and) that the best short and long term solutions are likely to be provided through the Truckee Donner PUD,” wrote Robert Farnsworth, president of the Homeowners’ Association, in a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission last September.
Not present for the court hearing were Emilie Kashtan and Kathy Polucha-Kessler, two health professionals who over the last year have committed their lives to fighting the water company and forcing state regulatory agencies to do their job.
Kashtan, a nurse who quit her job to work on the water problem full-time, and Kessler, an inspector with the Nevada County Department of Environmental Health, were overjoyed with the news that the Truckee Donner PUD was taking over.
“I am so happy,” said Kessler from the Nevada County building in Truckee Tuesday. “This was meant to be; this was meant to happen.”
Kashtan and Kessler committed themselves to fixing a water quality epidemic that they claim has led to cases of giardia, campylobacter and acute gastrointestinal illness.
While the state firmly denies that an outbreak occurred, small instances of illness have been reported to local authorities.
Kashtan, who holds a master’s degree in nursing and whose husband is a doctor, has been hearing about the symptoms for years. Kessler, a county inspector and water specialist, has walked up and down the water system taking pictures of broken pipes and tanks along the way and forwarded them to the state.
During their work Kashtan and Kessler contacted the offices of Gov. Gray Davis, state Sen. Tim Leslie and California Public Utilities Commissioner Loretta Lynch and Henry Duque.
They have been working with state and local officials on a daily basis, often feeling overwhelmed by what they could accomplish fighting the water company, state bureaucrats, lawyers and engineers.
But continuing to push the community forward was the knowledge of a water system with pipes that had never been replaced and a health problem that was slipping through the cracks.
“Low pressures and water outages greatly increase the possibility that the water system could become contaminated and cause illness among water consumers,” wrote the state in the emergency water declaration last June. The state recommended “that consumers heat to a rolling boil for at least one minute all tap water used for drinking, food preparation, ice making, oral hygiene and dish washing.”
Donner Lake residents have been boiling their water ever since.
The dilapidated water system is old news to Donner Lake residents. Water outages were first documented as far back as 1995, which prompted Nevada County’s health department to contact the state.
Water outages were widespread five years later. Significant repairs had yet to be made, nor had the water provider built a water treatment facility.
Kessler, who moved to Donner Lake in 1999, said she experienced water outages for the better part of a month in the summer of 2000.
A Nevada County Grand Jury released a report last summer reprimanding local and state regulatory agencies for failing to enforce safe drinking water standards, and instructed the water company to keep residents informed that it was operating properly.
State reports dating as far back as 1991 began to surface and described compliance violations that included sanitations systems without warning mechanism if they should fail.
But the real fight was not with the water company. The struggle became forcing the state to work on behalf of the homeowners, said Kessler.
“I’ve been hassled, harassed and threatened,” said Kessler. “We’ve spent $10,000 on this … and in addition the Department of Health Services wanted to bill us for their time.”
The Donner Lake community suffered a blow on May 14 when the Public Utilities Commission authorized Del Oro Water Co. to borrow up to $15.5 million dollars to plan, repair or replace the water infrastructure, a ruling that Donner Lake residents had been resisting since last fall.
The ruling was the result of a series of unprecedented meetings by the Public Utilities Commission in Truckee where Kashtan and Kessler, acting as attorneys for Donner Lake residents, battled attorneys for Del Oro Water Co. before Commissioner Henry Duque and Administrative Law Judge Glen Walker.
But the ruling won’t affect Donner Lake residents now that Del Oro Water Co. has given up the system to the Truckee Donner PUD.
“It was in the nick of time,” said Kessler from the Nevada County building in Truckee Tuesday. “I thought ‘how am I going to go against this judge again?'”
“I’m sorry that Emilie and Kathy couldn’t be here to shake your hand,” said Byrne last Friday, who had just finished expressing his gratitude to Peter Holzmeister, the general manager of the Truckee Donner PUD.
The Truckee Donner PUD has to apply for funding sources and file for the necessary permits before replacement work can begin.
“The hard part is working through all the different agencies,” said Ed Taylor, water superintendent with the Truckee Donner PUD.
“Yeah, but you guys aren’t sneaky,” said Juanita Schneider.
“We’ll make cookies for the boys that do the work,” said Marjorie Adkerson, a Donner Lake resident since 1974.
“Cookies are good,” joked Holzmeister. “Cookies will help.”
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Nevada County recorded 66 new COVID-19 cases on Friday making the new total 16,474. There were 140 active cases, 16,194 people released from isolation, one person hospitalized locally and 140 total deaths.