STPUD’s money poured into well may be a waste |

STPUD’s money poured into well may be a waste

The South Tahoe Public Utility District says it is at an impasse with the Forest Service.

The utility, South Shore’s primary water provider, has long been working with the federal agency to get permission to use an unfinished well on Forest Service land. However, after months of negotiations, STPUD officials now say no solution is going to be reached.

Chris Strohm, president of STPUD’s board of directors, said he doesn’t know what will happen next.

“We’re currently at an impasse,” Strohm said. “I think the Forest Service gave us their final version of the special-use permit. We feel it’s unacceptable.”

It’s bad news for STPUD, which desperately needed the new well and has already spent $800,000 on it. With more than a third of its wells shut down because of MTBE contamination, the district has had mandatory water-usage restrictions the past two summers when the number of STPUD water customers doubles.

“We’re looking at a real tough situation,” Strohm said. “Our well will not be on line. We don’t have a backup. If one of our wells goes down, we will be in real trouble.”

Colin West, forest engineer for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said his agency has “bent over backwards” to accommodate STPUD. And he said he was frustrated that STPUD decision makers are hung up on a few details.

“We have really tried hard to do everything we can to accommodate their MTBE issue and to help the district,” West said. “We accelerated our process a year ago so they could do exploration and put in the well. But now it’s come down to the permit to operate the well, and they’re asking us to relax some of our rules that we can’t.”

He said the agency has done what it can.

“We’ve been negotiating with STPUD since last fall on the terms of the special-use permit, and we’ve brought in Department of Agriculture attorneys, our regional staff and our Washington staff, and given all their concerns a great deal of consideration,” he said. “As a result, we have made as many changes as we can.”

Shortly before last year’s busy Fourth of July weekend, the Forest Service’s water provider at the time, Lukins Brothers Water Co., threatened to shut down service to the Forest Service’s South Shore recreation area, which includes Camp Richardson Resort, the Tallac Historic Site, Visitors Center at Taylor Creek and campground at Fallen Leaf Lake. There had been a long, ongoing rate dispute between the two parties.

STPUD stepped into the skirmish but couldn’t take over service because it couldn’t take on another big customer while water restrictions were already required.

Lukins Brothers continued to provide service, and STPUD took over in September. STPUD said it couldn’t continue that service after May 31 of this year unless the new well being built on Forest Land could be finished.

STPUD started work on the well last year with the understanding it could get a permit long before summer 2000.

However, this January, saying it was hesitant to move forward on construction without the permit, STPUD’s board stopped work on the well, postponing its completion date, at least well into summer.

The Forest Service – fearing that it would have no water for the area, which can have as many as 10,000 visitors on its busiest summer days – started planning to drill its own well. That drilling happened earlier this month, and West says the $275,000 well will be on line by June.

With many of its wells shut off because of MTBE, drilling new wells is a definite need for STPUD. However, the district is running out of places on South Shore to drill, with many areas contaminated by MTBE or other pollutants. Forest Service land had seemed like a prime location because it is far away from urban areas where contamination might occur.

But the district’s Strohm said the federal land will not be an option in the future.

“We really need to find some other spots. But I can promise you we won’t go on Forest Service land ever again,” Strohm said. “We got burned once; we’re not going to do it again.”

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