Questions about illness reporting at Donner Lake |

Questions about illness reporting at Donner Lake

Donner Lake resident Anna Nance was released from Tahoe Forest Hospital in late July after suffering from a disease she could hardly pronounce. She had been in the hospital for nearly two weeks.

Medical officials determined Nance contracted a bacterium they suspected to be campylobacter, a pathogen found in spoiled food, animal feces and turbid or dirty water.

“In 75 years I have never been that sick,” she said.

Tahoe Forest Hospital laboratories document four to eight cases they suspect to be campylobacter per year, officials said.

And while officials at Tahoe Forest Hospital report there have been no increases in cases of bacterial infection or giardia, residents at Donner Lake suspect some cases of gastrointestinal illness caused from the water are not being reported.

“When Nevada County Department of Environmental Health held a meeting in June for Donner Lake residents who suspected the water was making them ill, 12 of 50 people submitted responses,” registered environmental health specialist Kathy Polucha said. “Our department did not follow up because [the California Department of Health Services issued] a boil water notice, which came out shortly thereafter.”

The residents of Donner Lake have been boiling water since June 22, after the California Department of Health Services determined Donner Lake’s dilapidated water system could lead to contamination.

Donner Lake Water Company was mandated by the state in 1991 to comply with the Surface Water Treatment Rule which would require a multi-barrier surface-water treatment plant.

Currently the water company has yet to build the facility.

“I have gotten between 15 and 20 complaints of illness from Donner Lake residents within the last year. They have been both written and verbal. Some have been confirmed cases of Giardia and some have been less severe,” Polucha said.

Family nurse practitioner and infection control practitioner Chris Spencer at Tahoe Forest Hospital wrote a letter Aug. 16 to physicians in the area saying that she is responsible for notifying the county health department of all reportable diseases.

“I have not received notice of any positive specimens for a couple of months… If a physician uses a lab other than the hospital district it is the physician’s responsibility to forward the same information to public health,” Spencer said.

Spencer included a list of eight reportable diseases, including giardia, campylobacter and acute diarrheal disease.

“All are potentially transmitted by unchlorinated or contaminated water,” she said.

Because of the water system’s size, the state Department of Health Services is the regulatory agency assigned to regulate the safety of the water.

Ken August, a spokesman for the department, said they do not report or tally cases of acute diarrheal disease because it is not on the list on communicable diseases compiled by the Federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Complaints of gastrointestinal illness which are unrecognizable by bacteria and giardia tests, such as those caused by high levels of chlorine, are not reported to the state.

The Water Company was denied a loan by the California Public Utilities Commission on Sept. 7 for construction of the proposed facility after the commission concluded it was not necessary to approve the $3.7 million loan at that time. The commission cited the decision by the town to conduct an Environmental Impact Report over the location of the proposed treatment facility, the appealed easement decision and customer concern as reasons for delaying approval.

The CPUC did approve a $100,000 loan to Donner Lake Water Co. for planning the replacement of the distribution system.

To investigate the water crisis, the Donner Lake Property Owners Association appointed a citizens’ committee to report to the association’s board of directors.

“There are five committee members,” said association President Robert Farnsworth. “Because of the boil water notice that came out I decided we should be a little more aggressive in finding information about the water.”

The property owners association has 699 members – more than half of the homeowners at Donner Lake.

“We have concluded that the best short- and long-term solutions are likely to be provided through Truckee Donner Public Utility District becoming the provider,” wrote Farnsworth to the CPUC on Sept. 7.

To provide information to homeowners, the property owners association has provided an electronic e-mail forum called Beachtalk which is available to members at

In addition to the property owners citizens committee, an informal committee of concerned residents also approached the CPUC at their Sept. 7 meeting and have been conducting their own research. Information from the informal citizens committee is available by writing

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