District ponders using MTBE-tainted wells during water shortage | TahoeDailyTribune.com

District ponders using MTBE-tainted wells during water shortage

For the past year and a half of dealing with the controversial fuel additive MTBE, the South Tahoe Public Utility District has had an unofficial, unwritten policy of not serving MTBE-contaminated water, no matter how low the contamination level was.

That could change this week. The board is going to consider adopting a policy that would allow the district to use currently shut-down wells in extreme water-shortage situations.

“If it’s obvious we do not have enough water capacity, we’re going to have to turn on one of those wells,” said Dawn Forsythe, STPUD information officer. “But we have a contingency plan, where the least-contaminated wells will be turned on first.”

The utility district discovered MTBE contamination in two of its 34 wells in September 1997. Those two wells have since been destroyed, and 11 more have been turned off because of MTBE contamination, taking away about 20 percent of STPUD’s water capacity.

Four of the shut-down wells are not contaminated. They are near MTBE plumes, and officials fear pumping the wells will draw in the contamination. Groundwater – and MTBE – can move three times faster than normal if pulled by a pumping well.

The district would use the standby wells without contamination first. Before those four are contaminated, Forsythe said the district hopes to have new wells built. No MTBE-contaminated water would be served that exceeded California standards.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a fuel additive comprising significant portions of California gasoline. It is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

With several wells closed down last year, STPUD instituted mandatory water-usage restrictions for much of the summer.

With the level of restrictions mandated last year, the district was able to provide water to all of its customers. However, there were some close calls, and the district hopes this policy will help in those instances.

STPUD may be able to use the wells on standby for short periods of time during the busiest parts of the summer.

What: STPUD meeting

When: Thursday, 2 p.m.

Where: City Council Chambers, 1900 Lake Tahoe Blvd.

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