Forest Service gets 30 day extension before water service shut-off
There will be water for the U.S. Forest Service’s South Shore Recreation Area – at least for the next 30 days.
The Lukins Brothers Water Co. will not shut off service to the popular Lake Tahoe destinations, thanks to a short-term legal agreement hammered out in South Lake Tahoe Superior Court on Friday afternoon.
On Friday morning, Camp Richardson Resort filed suit to seek a court order to stop Lukins Brothers from shutting off its water. The Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has for some time been embroiled in a contract dispute with Lukins Bros.
A water shutoff would have also affected the Lake Tahoe Visitors Center, Pope-Baldwin Recreation Area, Fallen Leaf Campground and Tallac Historic Site – leaving the popular recreation areas without water for the busy Fourth of July weekend.
“It was basically a communications problem that brought us to this point,” said Lukins Brothers president Danny Lukins. “I tried to notify everyone earlier this morning that we weren’t going to shut off the water immediately.”
Actually, the issue never made it into court, as attorneys for both sides negotiated a truce in a court hallway.
A contract dispute between the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and Lukins Brothers has been ongoing for more than a year, and it came to a head last week when Lukins indicated his desire to shut off the federal agency’s water.
“I am extremely relieved that we were able to work something out,” said Colin West, Recreation and Staff Officer for the Forest Service.
The 30-day extension will give the Forest Service plenty of time to negotiate a new, long-term contract with the South Tahoe Public Utility District, which has indicated it likely would negotiate a long-term contract with the Forest Service.
But the STPUD board does not meet until after July 1, which has made everyone involved a little nervous about what could happen in the interim.
In 1997, Lukins proposed an across-the-board increase for its service of 86 percent. The California Public Utility Commission would eventually make the final determination of what the increase can be, but the agency agreed in May 1998 to allow an interim 26-percent increase.
The Forest Service filed a complaint to the state board, and Lukins said the federal agency had stopped negotiating with him. Linda Massey, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said, in addition to the rate increase, the agency did not want to be locked into a long-term contract. Camp Richardson officials continued negotiations until last week.
The issue of the Forest Service’s complaint was to be resolved last week. Provided that the state commission agreed it had no jurisdiction in the matter, Lukins was going to shut off the water. With the new involvement of STPUD, however, the state board put off it’s decision until July 8. Lukins was told by the commission, while it had no authority to stop him, it strongly urged him not to discontinue service.
Mike Weber, president of Camp Richardson Resort Inc., said Friday that Lukins was using the threat of no service as a “weapon” to get the Forest Service to commit to a long-term contract. When STPUD entered the equation, the possibility of the long-term contract became much less likely.
“I hate to use the word ‘extort’ a long-term agreement, but I don’t know what else to say. What would he gain by cutting off the water?” Weber said. “You don’t come in on the Fourth of July and shut off water. How does that benefit the community? It’s something you’re using as a weapon.”
Weber said Camp Richardson officials had essentially acted as mediators throughout negotiations and wanted a short-term contract all along.
Weber, who believes the area served by Lukins Brothers likely will be visited by 100,000 people over the next few weeks, described the company’s actions as inappropriate.
“I sympathized with Danny Lukins. That point has past. Danny has been, I think, a very greedy person for someone in his situation. Even though he has a personal vendetta with the Forest Service, he is willing to risk public health and safety. I think this is unconscionable for someone serving water,” Weber said.
“It’s one thing to turn off the water of one citizen when there’s a dispute. This would affect thousands of citizens,” he added. “It’s not about someone who didn’t pay their water bill. They’re ready to pay; they’re paying already. It’s terms of a contract, and I think public health and safety should come before first. There’s fire danger involved here, too.”
Weber said he is looking forward to negotiating a short-term contract with Lukins and a long-term deal with STPUD.
Lukins said the 86-percent increase proposed for his customers likely won’t have to happen now. The Forest Service used about 40 percent of his capacity, and the company needed to develop more infrastructure for providing the water.
“We think this is going to be a win-win situation for our customers,” Lukins said. “We haven’t sat down and started putting the numbers together, but I’m hoping it will be beneficial to our customers.”
STPUD customers currently are facing mandatory water-usage restrictions.
The district may be able to supplement its summer water supply by making infrastructure improvements. Additionally, one of the district’s closed-down wells, which officials previously thought would pull a nearby MTBE plume toward it if operated, will be OK to use for most of the summer.
The Forest Service has water rights to Taylor Creek, and as a part of the soon-to-be-formed agreement, STPUD would be able to use those. That would help the district’s long-term water supply problems.
District staff doesn’t believe the additional customers will force STPUD to tighten restrictions. The utility district’s board is scheduled to make a final decision July 1 on whether to take over service. It likely will take about 10 days after that before the district is able to provide service.
Friday’s agreement was approved by Superior Court Judge Allen Fields of Sacramento County.
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