Story of the year: Donner Lake Water Crisis | SierraSun.com
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Story of the year: Donner Lake Water Crisis

DARIN OLDE, Sierra Sun

Six months ago, more than 1,200 residents at Donner Lake began boiling their drinking water.

They boiled water for lemonade during Fourth of July weekend, for iced tea during Labor Day weekend and they are still boiling their water during the holidays in December.

Since the California State Department of Health Services declared a water emergency and issued a boil water notice six months ago, more than 1,200 Truckee residents have been living in what some liken to a third-world country.

The pipes and distribution lines of Donner Lake Water Company, which officials at the Department of Health suspect have never been replaced, have become so broken and dilapidated that water outages occur and cause back-flow, sucking dirt, mud, microorganisms and whatever else may be nearby into the water system. That water makes its way through the pipelines and into the residences and businesses at Donner Lake when the system regains pressure.

The threat of contamination, illness and disease, according to the state, is real.

A history of problems

Even before the pipes and tanks began to deteriorate, the water at Donner Lake aroused suspicion.

Contaminants that could affect water quality include pollen, boats, jet-skis, recreationists, animals, snowmelt, buried septic tanks from the ’60s and ’70s, leaching from logging and other factors. The water receives no filtration, and is only disinfected by large doses of chlorine.

The state got involved in 1991, when engineers determined the ground water wells were contaminated by surface water, and that the surface water did not comply with drinking water standards.

On Aug. 13, 1993 the Department of Health mandated the Donner Lake Water Company to build a water treatment plant and issued a compliance order describing the necessary requirements and deadlines.

The water company was not able to build and was eventually sold to Del Oro Water Co., a water purveyor for small water systems in Northern California. The order to fix the system by 1993 was extended, and the new water company embarked on a series of studies to determine how and where to build a water treatment facility that would meet state drinking water standards.

Years passed, rate increases were granted, studies were done, but the water treatment plant was never constructed.

On May 3, 1995, officials at the Nevada County Department of Environmental Health began to notify the State Department of Health regarding water outages that were occurring in the system.

During the next several years the system continued to deteriorate. By 1999, it had been nine years since the Department of Health officially recognized the system violated drinking water standards and mandated improvements.

The residents knew the system was on the brink of disaster. During the Fourth of July weekend in 1999 the system suffered a complete failure and several residents experienced prolonged water outages.

Donner Lake Water Co., meanwhile, had filed to condemn private property where it wanted to build the treatment plant. It was approaching the town with environmental documents and engineering studies, but concerns by Donner Lake Village Homeowners Association over the location of the plant, its design and the environmental effects slowed the process.

A water crisis begins

In early June 2000, Del Oro Water Co. officials announced their water treatment facility at Donner Lake could not be built this year due to continuing plan modifications.

The announcement by Del Oro consulting engineer Bill Gustavfson stunned Donner residents, who after years of anticipation realized they would have few other choices but to continue using water from Donner Lake.

Many of the residents of Donner Lake claimed Del Oro had been dragging its feet and that the organization had not provided requested information about water quality. Others complained that their water had been turned off without notice, or that outages were occurring more frequently, and that Del Oro had not responded to customer complaints.

The situation went from bad to worse when in the days preceding Fourth of July weekend 2000 the system failed again, and water outages were reported from numerous residents and businesses of the system.

On June 23, the California State Department of Health Services cited Del Oro Water Co. for running out of water.

The citation listed four violations of the California Waterworks Standards, including basic design, quantity of supply, system pressure and conditions for adding service connections.

Moreover, the directives by the Department of Health to the water company revealed what Donner Lake residents had feared all along: the company had not installed the necessary equipment to warn the water operators when the water was running out, when the system depressurized, or when the chlorinators – the only method for disinfecting the water – failed altogether.

The Department of Health ordered the water company to take immediate action to install new telemetry and control systems with an automatic telephone dialer system, accurate water level sensors, new and additional water pumps and to connect the chlorination system and lake intake pumps to the automatic telephone dialer system.

It was at this time the Department of Health declared the water company could not meet the demand on the system, and that with current conditions Donner Lake drinking water was unsafe.

In late June the State Department of Health officially declared a water emergency and boil water notice until the system could be repaired and an adequate and safe supply of drinking water could be restored permanently.

The State Health Services Dept. also listed 14 mandatory directives or actions the company must follow to avoid being shut down completely.

While the mandate and boil water notice confirmed that Donner Lake Water Co. had not upgraded the system, it also weakened confidence in the state as a regulator of water safety in small systems.

To help keep the water system from getting any worse, the California Public Utilities Commission, the regulatory agency responsible from protecting the utility customers from exorbitantly high rates, approved a mandatory rationing and conservation plan on Aug. 3.

The commission also approved a moratorium on new connections, and a financial audit of the Del Oro Water Company and its president Robert Fortino.

Treatment plant delays

The town approved the location for the proposed $3.7 million treatment plant by Donner Lake Water Co. Donner Lake Village appealed the decision, citing the flood potential of Gregory Creek, a drainage that contributed to the catastrophic flood of 1997.

Fortino suggested it was delays such as this that were causing delays in the construction of the treatment facility.

And the delays would continue.

On Aug. 31, Truckee Town Council voted 4 to 1 to uphold Donner Lake Village’s appeal after hearing conflicting hydrologic reports describing flood potential at Gregory Creek.

“First and foremost we’re very disappointed,” Fortino said. “We feel we could have addressed any environmental concerns in a much more expeditious manner than an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).”

Feeling a flood could completely destroy the treatment plant and the delivery of water for more than 1,200 residents, the council upheld the appeal.

“In light of the two conflicting reports it would be very hard not to ask for an EIR,” former Mayor Maia Schneider said.

California State Sen. Tim Leslie heard about the situation at Donner Lake and instructed members of his staff to organize a meeting between the California Public Utilities Commission, the State Department of Health Services and the residents of Donner Lake. In the meeting, the state agencies listed the repairs the company was making and updated the residents as to when the financing for the new water treatment plant could be expected.

During the meeting Schneider also announced efforts to separate plans to replace the water treatment plant from plans to replace the water distribution system. Previously the plans were included together, a situation that meant legal delays over the treatment plant would halt the delivery of money from the state to replace the corroded distribution system. Donner Lake Water Co. separated each plan, which then became eligible to receive independent funding.

Although the Department of Health Services mandated Donner Lake Water Co. to provide a treatment plant, the most immediate issue was the replacement of the distribution system. With new distribution lines, Donner Lake Water Co. would be able to maintain increased water pressure and water supply, and thus eliminate the need for the boil water ordinance.

The PUD gets involved

As Donner Lake Water Co. began to restore pressure to the system, Truckee-Donner Public Utility District, a local utility district, began to investigate acquiring the water system for Donner Lake.

In a letter, president of the PUD board Ronald Hemig wrote that the “Board of Directors heard from approximately 100 customers of Donner Lake Water Co. regarding the severe problems they are experiencing with water quality and service. The board was asked to consider providing water service to the Donner Lake area.”

As the Department of Health released more citations for Donner Lake Water Co., such as the citation for improperly certified personnel at their treatment facility, the PUD decided to investigate purchasing the water system or, if need be, acquiring the water system through condemnation.

“What we need to make clear to everybody,” said Peter Holzmeister, general manager for the PUD, “is that if we become the purveyor at Donner Lake, the residents of Donner Lake are going to have to pay for it – they [not the current customers of public utilities district] are going to have to pay for the improvement plan,” he said.

Fred Curry, chief of the water advisory branch of the state Public Utility Commission, explained that when a public entity like the district has a concern, the utility commission pays attention to it.

“We understand that Truckee Donner PUD is here in the public’s interest, and it is in the public interest that the PUC do what’s reasonable,” Curry said.

Citizens’ groups form

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

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 chairman Robert Farnsworth to the Utilities Commission on Sept. 7.

In addition, an informal committee of concerned residents also approached the state Public Utilities Commission at their Sept. 7 meeting in San Francisco.

The Donner Lake Citizens’ Group for Drinking Water had created two petitions, one for the PUD and one for the commission. Each had over 300 signatures.

The first petition urged the commission not to approve any loan to fund Del Oro. The second petition listed the number of people in support of the PUD as the water purveyor for Donner Lake.

“I signed both of them. But I don’t think that it will result in cheaper water, that’s for sure,” said lake resident Russell Rosewood. “I signed it because it is a nuisance to Del Oro. If they see that the whole community wants them to lose the water company it may stimulate them to do something.”

In the end, the Utility Commission voted unanimously to deny a loan for $3.7 million to Donner Lake Water Co. during its meeting Sept. 7.

“Due to the appealed easement decision, the pending Environmental Impact Report, and customer concerns, it is premature and not necessary at this time for this Commission to authorize the $3.7 million Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loan,” wrote Utility Commission Executive Director Wesley M. Franklin.

What lies ahead

The Public Utility District in Truckee has steadily been moving forward with plans to acquire the water system at Donner Lake, and will send a ballot to the homeowners with the estimated price each property owner must pay should the plans continue. The residents must decide to accept the price and return the ballot for the PUD to move forward. A simple majority will do, Holzmeister said.

The Town of Truckee and the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved a new assessment district, which transfers the jurisdiction to form the district over to the PUD. People will have 45 days to complete the ballot, which are expected to be delivered in early January.

Donner Lake Water Co. continues to move forward with plans to repair and replace the water system and has filed for state revolving fund loans to pay for the improvements. The water company was cited recently by the state for an incomplete leak detection survey, a directive listed in the June citation for running out of water.

On Dec. 19, the water company sued the Town of Truckee and Donner Lake Village, alleging the two agencies have prevented the company from doing repairs when the state has declared a state of emergency.

The suit was filed in Nevada County Superior Court and will be heard sometime in 2001.

The suit has confused town representatives, who feel the water company has had much of the last decade to repair broken and corroded pipes. The California Environmental Quality Act process, which the water company says is preventing the repairs, may not include replacements beyond the water treatment plant.

Regardless, the residents of Donner Lake are still at risk. They are still boiling, filtering and buying water, as they have for the last six months.

Whatever happens, it is clear that the Truckee area’s biggest news story of 2000 will continue to develop well into 2001.


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