Forest Service, STPUD at odds over water issue
Days continue to tick by with no guaranteed solutions as to how water will be provided to the hundreds of thousands of Lake Tahoe residents and visitors who will make summer trips to Camp Richardson Resort, the Tallac Historic Site, Visitors Center at Taylor Creek and campground at Fallen Leaf Lake.
The Forest Service continues with plans to drill a well in the area. However, questions remain as to whether there will be enough water for fire protection, how realistic of a plan it is that the well can be on line by June and what will happen to another well on which the South Tahoe Public Utility District has already spent $800,000.
“We’re very, very concerned,” said Carol Spain, executive director of the Tahoe Tallac Association, which has contracts with more than 100 groups planning to use the Tallac Historic Site for events this summer. “It’s a very important problem that has to be resolved soon.”
“For water protection, we require 1,500 gallons a minute for two hours,” said John Ceko, chief of the Lake Valley Fire Department. “They’re not going to be able to provide that. It’s a big concern for the public out there.”
The problematic situation of providing water for the Forest Service’s recreation area goes back more than a year.
After an ongoing contract dispute came to a head last year, the Forest Service nearly lost water for the popular visitors’ areas shortly before the busy July Fourth weekend when the supplier at the time, Lukins Brothers Water Co., threatened to discontinue service.
STPUD, South Shore’s primary water purveyor, jumped into the dispute but couldn’t supply the Forest Service with water at that time. STPUD, which supplies water to about 30,000 people through 12,500 connections normally and as many as 60,000 people in the summer, had mandatory water-usage restrictions in place at the time. The district had lost the use of more than a third of its wells from MTBE.
After negotiations, Lukins Brother continued providing service until the end of the summer; STPUD has been supplying since September.
Work on a new STPUD well began last year on Forest Service land near Camp Richardson, and the district has said it can’t supply the Forest Service this year unless the well is on line. However, the Forest Service has yet to issue a special-use permit, allowing the district to use the well. And STPUD last month halted all work on the well, citing a reluctance to continue spending money on the project without a guarantee that it will in fact get to use the well. At that time, the Forest Service started looking into the possibility of drilling its own well.
Disagreement between STPUD and the Forest Service now revolves around whether the district will be charged for the water taken from the property by the Forest Service. STPUD officials feel there was an understanding that the federal agency had no water rights regarding the aquifer, a large underground water supply which stretches elsewhere in South Shore and is already used by STPUD. Forest Service officials, however, say that the availability of water there should be included in the property’s assessed value. Therefore, that value should be taken into consideration.
Negotiations have been ongoing for weeks; however, there is no word yet on when, or if, the special-use permit might be finalized.
The completion date has been pushed back until at least early July. And, under a current agreement, STPUD is only supposed to provide water to the area until June 1.
Colin West, engineering and recreation staff officer for the Forest Service’s Tahoe unit, said he’s sure the new well will be ready by summer and confident an agreement will be reached with STPUD within six weeks.
“We think we’ve designed a timeline that will get us on line with our own supply before the South Tahoe Public Utility District turns our water off,” West said, adding that the agency’s well will need only about 20 percent of the capacity of STPUD’s.
“I’m confident we’ll work out all the details of the special-use permit within a month to six weeks,” he added. “I don’t see why not.”
Utility officials, however, are neither confident about the special-use permit nor the ability of the federal agency to get their own well ready.
“From a water purveyor’s standpoint, it’s as if they’re living in a fool’s paradise thinking that they’re going to get the well on line by that time,” said Dennis Cocking, STPUD information officer. “We know about drilling wells, and we don’t think we could get it done. I don’t know how the hell they’re going to do it.”
Cocking said it’s also disappointing the unfinished well won’t be usable for at least part of the summer. Water-usage restrictions are probably imminent again. If there is a wet, cold spring like in 1999, Cocking said it’s conceivable the district may be able to continue service to the Forest Service through June, but it’s not likely. And it would be impossible from the Fourth of July weekend through the rest of the busy season.
“Our responsibility is to the roughly 12,500 water customers we have that dutifully pay their bills,” Cocking said. “It’s not fair to jeopardize their water by taking on, no matter how dire the circumstances, another customer such as the Forest Service. There probably will already be Stage 2 water restrictions. We don’t want to force 12,500 customers into Stage 3.”
Cocking said the district is prepared to abandon the well it has been working on since late last summer. The last resort for the district, Cocking said, might be to bring a reverse indemnification suit against the Forest Service to try to recover the $800,000 it already has spent on the well.
“I think it would be a really unfortunate situation if we have to walk away from the well, but we are prepared to do it,” he said. “We’re not going to walk into a situation where we’re getting hosed.”
There are regulations at Tahoe that prohibit most excavation from Oct. 15 through May 1. However, Lauri Kemper, chief of the Tahoe unit of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the act of drilling the well would be an exception. The rest of the excavation involved probably could wait until May.
“It seems like they could probably do it between May 1 and Memorial Day,” Kemper said.
Ginger Huber, manager of the Tahoe office of El Dorado County Environmental Management, said her office will be issuing the permits to build the well. And she too thought the June deadline was achievable.
Others, however, say there will be problems even if the well is ready.
Lake Valley Fire Department’s Ceko said what the Forest Service is planning for the well’s capacity will be woefully inadequate for fire protection.
“That just doesn’t cut it as far as I’m concerned unless they will be able to supply 1,500 gallons a minute for two hours like the South Tahoe PUD will,” Ceko said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any power over federal. What I will do is be sending letters out to senators and our congressman and the chief of the Forest Service. I’ll protest in that way.”
As far as Lukins Brothers Water Co.’s getting involved again in the brouhaha, Danny Lukins said Friday that the company is required to consider every request for service. One thing is for sure, though; he doesn’t miss the situation he was in less than a year ago with the Forest Service.
Lukins said he had warned STPUD to have an agreement that was “black and white, and gold-plated” before proceeding with plans to drill the well on Forest Service land.
“I told them to watch themselves,” he said.
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