South Tahoe utility requires rate hikes to fix aging infrastructure

Laney Griffo

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — In order to keep up with replacement of aging infrastructure and rising construction costs, South Tahoe Public Utility District is proposing water and sewer rate increases, the first increase since before the pandemic.

As with most infrastructure at Lake Tahoe, most of STPUD’s infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s.

“While it worked for many years, it is now reaching the end of its lift,” said Shelly Thomsen, public affairs and conservation manager, STPUD.

In 2019, the board of directors approved maximum rate increases for the following five years, which matched California requirements under Proposition 218. However, because of the pandemic, the board voted not to raise rates in 2020 and 2021 and the rate increase now is still less than it would’ve been pre-pandemic.

But along with delaying rate increases, many important capital improvement projects were also delayed.

“As a utility system, to be responsible you need to be replacing things regularly,” Thomsen said.

The proposed rate increases would be from $133.38 to $144.06 for quarterly sewer costs and from $179.24 to $195.31 for quarterly water costs.

A water leak in the Rocky Point neighborhood in 2021.

If the rate increases are approved by the board, a large focus will be placed on replacing the water lines.

“We’ve seen a really large uptick in water leaks over the years,” said Julie Ryan, engineering department manager. “We’re wasting water and large leaks damage private property and public roads.”

Part of the reason for the failing water lines is because the funds from the last rate increase were used to install meters.

Those meters have been beneficial to the district. According to Thomsen, one-third of their customers found leaks they likely wouldn’t have found without the meters and they’ve seen a decrease in water usage over the whole district.

Still, while the meters have been beneficial, STPUD said it is important to now shift focus onto fixing and replacing water lines.

Ryan said that according to American Water Works Association Benchmarks, the district has a real water loss of 63 gallons per person per day, which puts them in the worst seventh percentile in our region and for main leaks/breaks per 100 miles, the district has 56 leaks/breaks per 100 miles which puts them in the worst 10th percentile.

While not as significant, the sewer system is also in need of upgrades. A failed sewer line recently caused a sinkhole to form on Tahoe Keys Boulevard and the district repaired over 200 water leaks in 2021.

STPUD crews acted fast to repair a sinkhole on Tahoe Keys Boulevard.

However, the district does have a game plan to tackle the issues. The engineers and field crews are constantly inspecting the systems and developing a project list. The engineers also meet with staff from El Dorado County and the city to compare upcoming projects, so if one agency is tearing up a road, STPUD can replace their lines at the same time, avoiding the need and costs associated with tearing up a road more than once.

This summer, STPUD will be replacing a Tahoe Keys sewer pump system and the water line in the Bijou area.

The district is trying to complete these projects during a time when everything costs more. Construction costs have gone up, as well as the district’s power costs.

“These costs are out of our control but all rate increases go directly to capital improvement projects,” Thomsen said.

The district is working diligently to ensure all the costs aren’t put solely on the customers.

“We have an aggressive grant program for infrastructure projects,” Thomsen said.

Over the past 10 years, the district has received $64 million in low interest loans and $16 million in grant funding.

They are also asking the federal government and the state to pitch in, since they also benefit from a working water system. The Caldor Fire is a perfect example of the importance of the system to those agencies.

Between the 2007 Angora Fire and the 2021 Caldor Fire, STPUD replaced water lines in Meyers and Christmas Valley with bigger pipes to allow for more water flow at higher rates to the fire hydrants, as well as high-capacity wells and booster stations.

“There was never a time when firefighters said they didn’t have enough water,” Thomsen said.

Included in the federal infrastructure bill was about $7 million for the basin to upgrade fire infrastructure. About half of that will be sent to STPUD and they’ve asked the state to match that funding.

Ryan notes that STPUD is the largest district in the region but still has the lowest costs, even with a possible rate increase.

The board will decide on the increase during their Thursday, May 19 meeting.

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