Tahoe water supply on the rebound | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe water supply on the rebound

Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune The drilling rig for a well under construction on San Francisco Avenue towers above pine trees.

Increased supply will not eliminate water restrictions

By Gregory Crofton

Tribune staff writer

In the past six years at South Shore, water wells have been shut down, gas stations have closed their doors and water restrictions have become the norm.

MTBE, a product intended to create cleaner-burning gasoline, contaminated groundwater and left South Shore’s largest water provider to work frantically to meet the demand of the 17,000 homes, businesses and fire departments it supplies with water.

But things are looking up for South Tahoe Public Utility District because of several new wells and an MTBE treatment system.

“We’re adding capacity and getting back some of the buffer any water system should have in the event it loses a well,” said Dennis Cocking, district information officer. “It doesn’t have to be as sinister as groundwater contamination. It could be that a pump blows up.”

The treatment system relies on ozone to strip methyl tertiary butyl ether from the water. The district has recovered two wells in Meyers. The second well went online this month on Bakersfield Avenue.

The water and sewer agency has also redeveloped two wells that were shut down because of MTBE contamination, drilled a new well off Emerald Bay Road and has another well under construction on San Francisco Avenue, which is expected to be ready for use by fall 2005.

Despite all the new sources of water, the district’s restrictions – which limit outdoor watering for homeowners and business owners to three days a week – are here to stay. Water is too valuable of a resource to waste, Cocking said.

“We’re trying to develop a culture of efficient water use,” Cocking said. “It doesn’t make sense, considering what it costs to make it, to waste it. I don’t think that will change.”

It cost the district $2,300 to produce 1 million gallons of water in 1993. By 2003, the cost had risen to $3,400, a 48 percent increase, according to Rhonda McFarlane, chief financial officer for the district.

McFarlane attributed the rising cost of water to the rising cost of power and labor, additional regulations and general inflation.

The well under construction on San Francisco Avenue won’t be ready until late 2005. The district will still design and install pipe to send water from the new well to the main water line, about five blocks away, near Highway 50.

But the good news, Cocking said, is that the new well looks like it will be one of the district’s largest water producers.

“It’s a great site,” Cocking said. “This location is close to the center of the aquifer. It has the makings of one of the best wells we’ve ever drilled. Time will tell on that.”

The well is protected from MTBE because it runs deep, tapping water more than 500 feet underground.

“The MTBE plumes are higher up,” said Paul Sciuto, district assistant general manager.

But the well is also located a good distance from any known plumes of contaminant, which have primarily spread from Tahoe Tom’s at Park Avenue, from the old Meyers Beacon, and from gasoline stations at the “Y” and Blue Lake Avenue.

Construction of the well on San Francisco Avenue, located near Argonaut Avenue, is expected to cost $1.3 million. The district has gotten complaints about noise generated from the well construction. The agency says that once it’s operational the well will not disturb the neighborhood.

The project is funded by a portion of a $69 million settlement that the district and its team of attorneys received after they sued oil companies that produced MTBE.

The district netted about $45 million from the lawsuits, $10 million of which was spent immediately to deal with problems caused by the fuel additive. The other $35 million is to fund MTBE problems that develop in the future. The chemical moves very quickly underground and computer modeling has indicated that more district wells will be contaminated.

The models, Cocking said, indicated that the MTBE plume would not reach the Bakersfield well until 2018. Trace amounts of the additive turned up in the well in the spring of 2003.

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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