More than a year after Lake Tahoe’s largest sewage spill, steps are being taken to prevent future incidents that could hamper years of work to keep Tahoe blue.
On July 19, 2005, a contractor with Tahoe City-based Pacific Built punctured a 14-inch sewage main line while constructing a pier for two Kings Beach property owners. As a result, an estimated 56,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled onto the shoreline, shutting all access to the lake in Kings Beach for several days and knocking the wind out of a portion of the all-important summer tourism season.
“It was an education that people couldn’t ignore,” said Steve Rogers, general manager of the North Tahoe Public Utility District. “Based on what happened, we need to be in a position to make sure something positive came out of it. We want to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.”
The North Tahoe Public Utility District, which oversees the sewer line that was broken, worked with neighboring agencies to stop the spill, but the damage was done. Four beaches were closed for 10 days and another was shut down for 16 days.
The North Tahoe Business Association and the Placer County Economic Development Department pegged the extent of the economic loss to businesses at $80,000. That sum goes up to about $400,000 when the impact to responding agencies is added.
Fingers were pointed in all directions during a May hearing of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board to determine how much the contractor and property owners should be fined. Water board officials contended that the contractor failed to call a toll-free number to locate underground utilities.
None of the regulatory agencies, however, were able to determine how no information was passed on to the applicant that a sewer main line lay on the shorezone.
Since the spill, Rogers said the district has updated its emergency response plan, and held a training in August with Placer County Office of Emergency Services for all of the special districts in the Tahoe Basin and Truckee.
Regionally, districts are updating the mutual aid program to take inventory of what tools and equipment each agency has.
Rogers noted that the most important change is the improvement of communication and sharing of information among agencies.
“Prevention and avoidance are key,” Rogers said. “And that incident didn’t need to happen.”
Perhaps the biggest change to come out of the incident is that a partnership was formed between all the special districts in the basin and the Army Corps of Engineers to look at removing the sewer lines from the lake shore and surrounding areas. It is estimated that it will cost $92 million to remove all the sewer lines in the basin.
“We have some sewer lines and mains that we can relocate, but the problem is they are working fine,” Rogers said. “Is it fair for taxpayers to absorb the $6 million that it would take?”
The districts will develop a sewer project identification process, determine sewer prioritization, support education and outreach on the topic and develop program level regulatory permit process.
Since the Kings Beach sewage spill, both the water board and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency have included language in their permits that require applicants to call the toll-free underground utility number before excavating.
TRPA General Counsel Joanne Marchetta said her agency now requires permit holders to call USA DIGS, the underground utility hotline. Marchetta said TRPA has no intention of providing underground maps to applicants.
“We are not a utility agency,” Marchetta said. “We can flag issues in a permit, but ultimately it is up to the contractor and applicant to do the ground work. There were a number of fail-safe options and none of them played out. Now that agencies changed permit language, there is an additional level of fail safe in place.”
Lauri Kemper, a division manager at Lahontan, said her agency added a permit condition that requires applicants to either call the toll-free number or to contact all local utilities in the area. If the applicant fails to comply with the condition, enforcement could be taken, she said.
“There is a mechanism to identify underground utilities. There is a 1-800 number,” said Chuck Curtis, supervising engineer for Lahontan. “We rely on the information from the party seeking the permit to identify hazards. The project proponent has the best idea of conditions at the site. That’s why the 1-800 number is in place.”
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