South Shore water district met storm’s challenge: No spills and no service outages
Sometimes it’s the good things that never get noticed.
During the New Year’s storms that dumped 11 inches of rain and deprived 12,000 residents of power, one thing we could all still do was flush our toilets and turn on the faucets.
While nearly half of South Shore’s 39 sewage pump stations lost power beginning Saturday, Dec. 31, there were no sewage spills and no disruptions in water service.
With 18 generators running and eight employees working overtime and around the clock, the South Tahoe Public Utility District kept it together.
“They did do a great job,” said Ginger Huber, Tahoe division manager for El Dorado County environmental management, which responds to all sewage and hazardous waste spills because of health concerns.
“In the past when we’ve had flooding like we had over the weekend, they’ve come very close to losing some of their facilities,” she said.
Jim Jones, who has been on the district’s board of directors since 1977, attributed the success to hard-working and experienced employees, but also credited good investments in infrastructure.
“If the same thing had happened years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to handle the situation,” Jones said. “I remember sitting in the manager’s office (in the 1980’s) when he said, ‘If the power goes off one more time, we are going to have to turn the water off.'”
Since 1997, the district has spent $4.8 million on generator technology, said district spokesman Dennis Cocking. The district installed 16 generators, at $50,000 each, and purchased two large generator systems, one at its Luther Pass pump station for $2.5 million and one at the plant for $1.5 million.
Cocking said when the district’s board approved these investments a decade ago, it allowed them to avert any number of disasters.
The utility operates on a budget of more than $27 million a year, serving 17,000 sewer and 14,000 water connections, and treating over 2 billion gallons of wastewater a year. Thirty-nine pump stations send sewage to a major station at Luther Pass, where it is sent out of the basin.
Four small water companies remain in South Shore that provide the remaining 3,000 households with water.
Randy Curtis, the district’s field operations manager, said his workers knew the system well and had the experience to pull through.
But if the snow that fell Sunday was any deeper, their job would have been much more challenging because it would have prevented their ability to get to the pump stations fast, Curtis said.
City streets remained unplowed on Sunday, New Year’s Day, after 10 to 12 inches of snow fell. Many comments on the Tahoe Daily Tribune’s Web site questioned whether the unplowed roads could have hampered public safety.
Rates remain steady
Because of the investments made since the 1990s, the utility has not had to raise its rates as dramatically as other districts, Jones said.
“We did a lot of these things years ago when it was cheaper, so we are ahead of the game,” Jones said.
The district is the lowest cost sewage provider in the Lake Tahoe Basin, Cocking said. Water and sewage rates are both below state averages, despite extra environmental requirements.
For the most part, the utility’s service is not metered, so the average household with two toilets and one kitchen pays a fixed $177.45 every quarter. That breaks down to $102.48 for water, and $24.99 per sewer unit per quarter. In 1994, the rate for the average household was $133.64.
Tahoe Keys Water Department recently raised its rates from $77 per quarter to $127 per quarter. The department provides only water service. The money will go into a fund to replace the system’s 45-year-old iron pipes.
Ed Morrow, general manager for the Tahoe Keys Water Department, also puts his faith in correct planning and investments.
“You rapidly spend more money patching than you would to replace in the first place,” he said. The department’s generator ran for a few hours on New Year’s Eve and no service was lost.
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