Connecting Martis Valley to Truckee, Lake Tahoe high priority
February 23, 2016
TRUCKEE, Calif. — With 2016 being an election year, the Sierra Sun is devoting time each week to conduct interviews with officials and board members who work for the many public districts and government agencies representing Truckee and North Lake Tahoe.
This week, we feature a Q-and-A with Northstar Community Services District General Manager Mike Staudenmayer.
Sierra Sun: How would you describe the state of the district today?
Staudenmayer: I would say in a nutshell we're well positioned from a lot of different aspects. First and foremost, we have a really skilled, qualified and dedicated workforce, which is probably the most important thing you can have in the service industry, so we're blessed to have that. And it helps us do the high-quality work that we need to do on a daily basis.
Beyond that, we have state-of-the-art facilities, equipment and infrastructure to help provide these services. We have adequate revenue to give us the resources that we need to do our work on an operational level. On a looking-forward basis, we have capital-reserve planning in place and capital revenue coming in through a plan that we did about five years ago that's funding all of our future capital needs. One of the things a lot of folks probably don't realize is that in this business have very capital-intensive infrastructure to provide services, and we have $100 million in capital assets just within our small little district. And none of these things last forever—a lot of them are out of sight. And so if you're not properly planning for the replacement of that infrastructure, than you're looking at a major liability. In fact, nationwide in the next 20 years, for just water and sewer it's over a trillion dollar liability in aging infrastructure replacement, so we take it seriously and we're planning for it.
Beyond that, we have a strategic plan in place that we adopted two years ago, and it's forward-thinking, it gives us a guideline to reflect upon as we move around the calendar and make sure we're accomplishing what we need to accomplish. All in all, in a nutshell, that puts us in a good position to provide the services that we're asked to do here.
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Sun: What's the top one or two biggest challenges the district faces in 2016?
Staudenmayer: The immediate challenge that I see, on a project level, is connecting the Martis Valley Trail to the wildlife viewing area, which will then lend itself to connectivity of trails throughout Martis Valley. Right now it dead ends at the Army Corps boundary. And although we have a CEQA document in place to do that, we are going through the NEPA process because the Army Corps land is a federal property and it triggers the federal version of CEQA. Federal agencies don't move at the same clip that a local agency might, so although we've been working on this for over a decade, we're still not there. We're optimistic that we're going to get there, but it's been a challenge and will continue to be a challenge until we actually get through that process.
Another set of challenges that I see coming forward would be complying with the state's groundwater legislation, which is new for water purveyors — we've never had anything like this. So we're in a position where we need to collaborate with the counties and the town and the other water agencies to put together a plan and a set of compliance measures to meet the requirements of the legislation. Although we've been good stewards through our partnerships with the other water purveyors in the area, we need to check the regulatory checkbox to comply with this state legislation and pulling all these different entities together with different perspectives is challenging. Again, I think we'll get through it, we all have good partnerships with these agencies, but it is a challenge getting everybody's minds wrapped around this legislation and how best to meet it while not creating more costs for our ratepayers.
On a longer-term perspective, I'd say employee retention is probably paramount in terms of keeping the level of service at a high level for our constituents. And with the cost of housing in our area and the close proximity to Reno, which is seeing a fairly significant economic boom, it's going to be a challenge to keep our employees close and able to respond to emergencies and whatnot and be a part of the community. For folks that need to respond to emergencies, be it a fire response or sewer or water emergency, snow removal, that extra 30 minutes can be problematic.
Sun: As we embark on the second half of the decade, what improvements do you want to see with the district by 2020?
Staudenmayer: Going back to the first challenge, the completion of the regional trail — not only to the wildlife area but to Northstar Village and up the hill to the Tahoe Rim, giving us connectivity to both the North Shore and the town of Truckee — I think is probably one of the highest priorities in terms of improvements we'd like to see here as a district.
I'd also like to see continued development of the science around the aquifer that we're all dependent upon — the Martis Valley aquifer. We've got great science, probably some of the best science today, but it's a moving target with climate change and we want to make sure that we're on top of it and staying abreast of the latest and greatest technology to understand what's going on with the aquifer. So I think continuing that effort is of high importance.
And probably one of the most important things we can do is maintain our focus on fuels management, that is forest fuels management and forest health. We started a program here after the Angora Fire whereby we go out and treat the common areas and the larger parcels to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire at the same time improving forest health. And as a region, this is probably one of the most important things that we can do, in my opinion. Because without good, healthy forests, we don't have good water quality, we don't have good biodiversity, we don't have property values, we don't have a tourist draw that this region depends upon. It connects to everything that we do and whatever is important to this region. So I think maintaining that focus — we just treated our thousandth acre this year, so we want to continue that and make sure we're doing all that we can to prevent the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
Sun: How does the district balance the needs of locals and second homeowners and tourists when delivering service?
Staudenmayer: We have all three here being a resort community. Only about 10 percent of our constituents are actually fulltime residents. And the rest are either second homeowners or day skiers, which on any given day can take our population up by an order of magnitude or two. So we have to build the church for Easter Sunday, we have to have the water and sewer infrastructure, the road circulation, the fire and paramedic response and equipment necessary for a population base that is very cyclical and seasonal and changing. So we don't differentiate between the different groups, we are manned up for those peak times and are ready to respond to whatever demographic might be here at any given day throughout the calendar year.
With regards to the second homeowners that own property here, we have invested in some technology, particularly in our water infrastructure, that allows us to communicate near real-time water use to the customer base through a variety of platforms that allows them to have a better understanding what's happening with their second home when they're not there. For instance, the technology will allow them to set user defined thresholds for water consumption so they can monitor irrigation and other uses as well as set alerts for if there were to be a leak, which is huge. In years past, folks would show up, open their front door to an ice castle if there was a leak that had gone on without them knowing. Now they're alerted within 24 hours, so there are no excuses; they can get a plumber over there and take care of things. So that's one way we're able to help the second homeowners when they're not in town, manage their properties.
Sun: In this modern era of smartphones and social media, how is the district changing how it communicates important information to the community?
Staudenmayer: This water meter technology is on the forefront of that, it gives that visibility into hourly, daily, yearly use. They can benchmark against their neighbors, they can get notified of their consumption habits, so that's a tool that we think provides a ton of value to our customer base. More generally, we have the Nixle system, which is what the town uses and the Truckee Police Department to notify folks of emergencies, road closures, evacuations or anything that's going on in the community that may be of interest so we've been utilizing that. We're not into Facebook and Tweeting because at this stage of the game it's more of an active mode of communication that folks need to monitor amidst the rest of the social media noise and whatnot and we find that if we're doing our job folks don't really want to know what we're up to on a daily basis. Given that we are not seeing any demand for it, I don't know how many Facebook friends we'd have for our water and sewer business, but right now we're small enough that we don't feel that's a direction we need to go at this time. And the Nixle and our website and our technology platform for our water meters covers the gist of the communication that we need to get through to our customer base.