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Guest View: More to the story at STPUD

Dennis Cocking

It is understandable John Runnels feels disappointed not being selected for the South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District Board of Directors. He and others put their time and effort into their bid for the appointment and the district appreciates their efforts. However, Kathleen Farrell is a very qualified and experienced member of our community. Ms. Farrell brings a wealth of board experience to the district as well as a willingness to open-mindedly understand the very complicated and highly regulated services the district provides to our customers.

Mr. Runnels went on to make a series of statements regarding the district’s operations that were ostensibly presented as facts. Webster defines a fact as something objectively verified or put forth as objectively real. As public information officer for the district, it is my job to know the facts, and I would like to provide some factual clarity to the issues Mr. Runnels raised.

First, regarding water pressure and volumes, as they pertain to fire suppression sprinklers, the district’s legal mandate is to provide potable water, not fire flows, to the community we serve. The water system was never designed to provide the fire flows necessary, nor is it possible to “rebuild” the system overnight. Since 1993, the district has spent over $17 million for waterline replacement, over $7 million for new supply wells, $1.5 million for booster pump stations, and $5.3 million for water tanks. There is $6 million under construction for waterlines this year, and over $18 million is in the 10-year capital improvement plan for water line replacement. As a community service the district adds fire hydrants at 500-foot intervals when the system improvements are made. In addition, the district is currently seeking federal assistance in speeding this infrastructure process along. Incidentally, for a good portion of the same period of time, the district was fighting the gasoline additive MTBE as it contaminated 12 of the district’s supply wells and threatens others to this day. Clearly, the district has made fire flows a priority.



Second, the district has never gone in search of water systems to purchase. In response to the Clean Water Act in the early 1970s, many small private water systems recognized the complexity and expense of complying with these new regulations, and chose to sell. They approached the district, as we were the only agency in the area that had the capability and expertise to provide the service. Had the district not responded it is likely they would have been without a water service provider. Ironically, the water company Mr. Runnels cites, Martin Brothers, was by far the best system the district ever acquired. Similarly, Lukins Brothers Water Company approached the district; not the other way around. As part of our due diligence, the district is currently evaluating that water system to determine the feasibility of a purchase. The district’s greatest concern is not burdening our current customers with the costs of improvements that system might require.

Finally, the district’s new Customer Service Facility replaces a building that was constructed in 1959. There is no other public agency in the Tahoe Basin, to my knowledge, that has occupied the same building for 47 years. An independent structural analysis performed in 2002 showed severe seismic insufficiency as well as structural insufficiency. In short, it was in danger of collapsing under a snow load. In the words of the engineering report, “In good conscience, we cannot recommend doing nothing.”



The Laboratory and Operations portion of the new facility are indeed built to a higher standard, as it is an essential services facility. As Hurricane Katrina vividly showed us, in an emergency situation such as earthquake, storms, fires or floods, water and sewer are the most essential of services. The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is the employee lunchroom and can be quickly converted to an EOC should that become necessary. Rather than a duplication of efforts, it is critical all agencies have EOCs to manage their emergency operations. That redundancy is a safeguard, not a luxury.

The infrastructure, regulatory and funding challenges the district faces are complex and many. We welcome the participation of our public in facing those challenges. I would extend an invitation to Mr. Runnels, and anyone else, to call me, tour our facilities, talk to our employees, and learn what a forward thinking agency we are.

– Dennis Cocking is public information officer for the South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District.


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