God bless Dawn Forsythe | TahoeDailyTribune.com

God bless Dawn Forsythe

by Andy Bourelle

One of the soldiers – if not the leader – in Lake Tahoe’s war against MTBE is leaving her post.

Dawn Forsythe, South Tahoe Public Utility District information officer, is flying Friday to a new job in Washington, D.C. Her husband Doug will follow after selling their Meyers home.

Today is her last day at STPUD.

“If we were still getting MTBE in our gas, if there wasn’t light at the end of the tunnel, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the interview,” she said. “I wouldn’t leave in the middle of a fight. But Tahoe won. I think I can leave with a clear conscience.”

How can she do this?

“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Forsythe said she would “rather not” disclose her new salary. Her STPUD salary is $55,000 a year.

She will be working for the U.S. Wheat Associates as the director of communications.

“I have mixed feelings: sad to be leaving here, nervous about starting there, dread for having to move, excited to learn a whole new area for me,” she said.

Forsythe, 47, started at the district in October 1997. At the time, already two of the district’s wells had been closed because of MTBE contamination. However, it looked like an isolated incident.

Her managers filled out short descriptions of what they viewed her responsibilities were, and there was only one brief mention of MTBE. Fighting to get MTBE out of Tahoe’s gas ended up consuming 80 to 90 percent of her time.

“We’ve been told the district really led the MTBE-free movement in the state and the nation, and she really led the district,” said Chris Strohm, vice chair of STPUD’s board. “The community is a lot better off because she was here, even though it was only a short time. We will miss her.”

While numerous Tahoe and state officials helped to get MTBE-free gas to Tahoe, Strohm said, Forsythe probably had the most impact.

“She more than made a difference; she was the difference. She was the leader,” he said. “She deserves a lot of credit for the success we’re having in Tahoe right now, in terms of getting MTBE out of our gas.”

Forsythe said she feels like she has made a difference in the MTBE fight. However, to her, all she did was inform others – state agencies, elected officials, newspaper and TV reporters and children in classrooms – about what was happening. In other words, she was only doing her job.

Prior to coming to Lake Tahoe, Forsythe was the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, worked in political campaigns for the Illinois Legislature and – from 1990 to 1997 – was a lobbyist for the pesticide industry.

“I enjoyed working in agriculture, which is basically what the pesticide market is. I enjoyed working in government. My own personal outlook, though, changed the more I learned about how much we did not know about pesticides and the way we approached the gaps in the data,” she said. “I was uncomfortable having to support a position I didn’t believe in. I can’t do that. I have to believe in what I support.”

She found the STPUD job on the Internet.

“I needed a place to go to regain my soul, and Tahoe was the perfect place for that,” she said.

At Tahoe, although not expecting to, Forsythe found a fight she could believe in – the fight to get MTBE out of Tahoe’s gas.

As wells continued to fall, STPUD started an MTBE-free campaign of sorts, urging local and state officials to join the fight. In March of this year, after more than one-third of the district’s wells were closed, California Gov. Gray Davis ordered a three-year phaseout of the additive’s use in California and ordered state agencies to work with the oil company to get MTBE out of Tahoe’s gas sooner.

The district – and Forsythe – were initially very critical of the governor, skeptical that the state bureaucracy would provide no quick results. The next day, however, Tosco Corp. announced it would have MTBE-free gas to Tahoe very soon. The district’s tone changed. Forsythe was quoted in the paper saying: “God bless Gov. Davis.”

Her soon-to-be employers were impressed with her work on the MTBE issue – and they laughed when they saw the quote.

“Before I was a lobbyist, I used to direct political campaigns. (The MTBE-free movement) was the most intense political campaign I’ve ever been involved in,” she said. “The only difference is on a political campaign you have an election date when you can put a red circle on the calendar. Until Gov. Davis made a decision, it looked like it was going to go on forever. I reiterate: God bless Gray Davis.”

Forsythe loved Tahoe; she didn’t love winter at Tahoe.

“I love the area, but I’m not a skier. When I left (to drive to the Reno airport to go to the Washington, D.C.) interview, it was June and it was snowing,” she said. “I don’t mind how deep the snow is; how long the winter lasts can really affect someone who isn’t into winter sports.”

Besides the Tahoe Basin itself, Forsythe said she loved, and will miss, something else – her job.

“I loved it. When I say I have to believe in what I fight for, that was the case here. I respect the staff and the general manager. I have never had a better boss than (STPUD general manager) Bob Baer. He knows when to support you and when to kick you in the butt. I think he would be everybody’s dream boss,” she said. “The board – every single one of them has their own distinct personalities. Together, they have a great conglomeration of strengths.”

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