Keeping the wheel turning after 75 years
When a devastating five-year drought in the late 1920s transformed the Truckee River into a desert, left the water wheel subsequently immobile and the town desperate to find alternative means for supplying electricity, voters rallied to create a more reliable provider – not to mention, one they had local control over.Today, three-quarters of a century later, that provider – the Tahoe Donner Public Utilities District – is still finding ways to keep the wheel turning.This year, the TDPUD is celebrating its 75 years of service.”The greatest thing is that I can say with confidence that we’re going to be here for another 75 years and we’re looking forward to it,” said Peter Holzmeister, TDPUD general manager since 1984. “We’ve worked really hard to position ourselves to be here in the future, building on the strengths of our past to bring us into the future.”According to Holzmeister, the TDPUD was one of the earliest districts in the area, and consequently, a founding father of sorts. The early customer base consisted of only a few dozen houses and shops in the downtown area that were serviced by four part-time employees.Today, the district has expanded to include a staff of 55 full-time employees, and serves roughly 11,400 electric and 10,700 water customers living within 44 square miles.”We’ve really been an anchor for Truckee over the years,” Holzmeister said.While the district relied heavily on power contracts with Sierra Pacific Power Company to supply electricity to customers in the early years, Truckee’s rapid expansion, coupled with the instability of several small local water companies in the 1940s, led TDPUD to venture into the water business for the first time.By purchasing some of these small water suppliers, the TDPUD not only acquired the ability to provide the town with fresh spring water, but also a sizeable chunk of land, which they would later sell for development. Those funds enabled the TDPUD to further expand and improve services, drill wells, install more power lines and hire maintenance crews.One of the earliest lineman was Ron Reynolds, who still works as a planner for the district after more than 32 years, having traded in the old days of “danger and adventure” for blueprints and a computer.”Working here has been a great experience,” Reynolds said. “Sure, there were times when I’d ask myself what I was doing here, hanging off a pole in the middle of the night when it was 15 degrees below zero. But it was also excited and rewarding. I love my job.”Reynolds recalls one time when it had snowed so much that none of the district’s vehicles could make it out to the area overlooking Donner Lake where a transformer needed to be replaced.”A group of us got a train to take us up there, and we hung this huge transformer in a blizzard with the help of a locomotive pulling it for us,” he said with a chuckle. “Boy, was that great!”When Reynolds joined the TDPUD in the 1960s, the district was again in the midst of a major expansion. Around this time, the district built the Truckee substation, purchased the Donner Lake distribution facility from Sierra Pacific Power Company (and thus, added “Donner” to its name) and expanded its electric system as well.TDPUD even built a golf course off Highway 267, now known as Ponderosa Golf Course, which according to longtime TDPUD board of director member Pat Sutton was instrumental in the formation of the Truckee Donner Recreation and Park District.”After our district sold the golf course, the voters really felt as though they needed some organization to manage their parks and such,” Sutton said.When Sutton was elected to the board in 1973, growth, particularly the continued development of Tahoe Donner, was a major issue of concern for the community.”This district has really grown and changed so much over the years, but I think we’ve continued to do a great job of serving the community, despite those changes,” Sutton said. Holzmeister pointed to the TDPUD’s exceptional track record for problem solving.”We’ve shown time and time again that we have the organization and the ability to step up to the plate whenever a situation arises, and to deal with those problems effectively,” Holzmeister said. “We’re able to pull together in difficult times and that is what will carry us into the future.”Some examples include the TDPUD’s recent acquisition of both the ailing Donner Lake and Glenshire water systems over the last year.As the TDPUD looks to the future, Holzmeister said the major issue the district is looking at is the possibility of offering broadband services to customers.The district is currently investigating various options for construction of a fiber optic system and is expected to make a decision on the issue sometime later this year.”We’ll also be continuing to face the question of how to deal with growth in the area,” Holzmeister said. “We need to be extremely careful about how we deal with and protect our water supply, and will need to cooperate and be courteous about how we share and use our resources.”As the district and the town move into the future, Sutton said she hopes the community will continue to be involved with the TDPUD.”The great thing about a public utility district is that the voters are in control,” Sutton said. “The public gets to elect the board, oversee management and establish policies. We still aren’t getting as many people as we’d like to see at our meetings, though.”Sutton said it’s important for people to attend meetings, to stay informed of the issues and read the agendas.”The main way in which local government is perpetuated is when the public takes an active interest in it,” she said.Holzmeister agreed.”Since our inception, the TDPUD has been owned by those we serve,” Holzmeister said. “That’s the great thing about our district – our commitment to this community. You’re not going to see that with PG&E. we’re focused on Truckee, on the people of Truckee. That’s a huge part of our identity.”TDPUD will be celebrating its 75th anniversary throughout the year. Check back for information on upcoming events.
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