My Turn: North Tahoe PUD infrastructure in bad shape
October 15, 2006
Water and sewer systems do not occupy much of our thoughts, that is, as long as everything is working. This infrastructure is invisible to us, and as long as we turn on the faucet and get clean, drinkable water and successfully flush the toilet it remains so.The only time we think of it is when something goes wrong and we see a geyser erupt in our front yard or the maintenance crews digging on our streets. This is an indicator that all is not well with this infrastructure. The water and sewer grids are very old and literally crumbling beneath our feet.I live in a neighborhood with a sub-standard leak-prone water system, as most of you living in Kings Beach and Tahoe Vista do also. My street, Rim Drive in Tahoe Vista, has had water line breaks/leaks repaired five times this year alone. The most recent repair required replacement of 75 foot of pipe because there were 13 leaks in that section. Unfortunately the crew said this is a common occurrence in the district.Then two weeks after that, the crew was back repairing four sewer line problems. The decaying condition of the water and sewer grids is well known to the North Tahoe Public Utility District. Yet maintenance continues, as it must, and replacement is not even remotely possible under current fiscal policies.The district has lapsed into a reactive maintenance mode. What we need is a proactive approach starting with long-term master planning including water and sewer grid improvement.Unaccounted for water loss (leakage and breaks) has averaged 28 percent a month this 2006 and has been as high as 39 percent for one month early in the year. And it is getting worse every year, according to North Tahoe PUD records. This is after we have paid for water pumping, treatment and storage. The increasing maintenance costs inevitably will result in a water rate increase, and we are almost there. In February 2006, the board of directors adopted the districts comprehensive Capital Improvement Program (CIP), which identified extensive long-term capital infrastructure needs in the range of $98 million, primarily grid improvement.In the current budget, 94 percent of water revenue is spent for operating costs (including maintenance), and 96 percent of sewer revenue, leaving only $313,701 for capital improvements. This is less than what has been identified as needed for water and sewer grid replacement.Reserves are available, but are inadequate to meet the CIP projections. Effectively, there is nothing for grid replacement, and will continue to be so as long as the current fiscal policy is practiced.For several years the board of directors has been operating under a pay as you go philosophy. This is completely inadequate for large-scale improvements such as grid replacement. Imagine if we waited to buy a house or new car until we had the cash. We would be living in apartments and driving old cars.We expect conservatism of those controlling public monies, but not to the point of neglecting the future.The North Tahoe PUD general manager/CEO recently informed the district board in the 2006-2007 district budget, What remains clear is that current revenue streams are not adequate to continue to meet the annual operating costs for water, sewer and recreation and parks operations, and fund the necessary capital infrastructure identified in the CIP on a ‘pay as you go basis.He continued, The net result is fewer funds are available from annual revenue to allocate for current year capital improvement projects or reserves for construction in a future year.The pay-as-you-go fiscal policy is sacrificing the infrastructure integrity and will financially burden the future of our community, as grid replacement is inevitable, and the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be.A community the size of ours cannot bear the cost of replacing the water and sewer grids alone, and yet they must be replaced. The board of directors must complete a district master plan for use in obtaining federal, state and county funding, abandon a failed fiscal policy, begin replacement of the infrastructure and conduct community outreach to inform district residents of the replacement strategy and progress.Until this is done, we continue to walk over a ticking time bomb.Jerry Wotel is a Tahoe Vista resident and candidate for North Tahoe PUD board of directors.