Up a creek without a permit
Just before the Upper Truckee River runs into the Lake Tahoe Golf Course, a line of black gravel bags create a small bubbling rapid. And beneath the gravel bags lies a South Tahoe Public Utility District sewer line that, if broken or punctured, would dump thousands of gallons of sewage into the stream.
With last year’s high runoff, the channel and stream bed eroded to expose the pipe, increasing the danger that it could break and leak waste. STPUD recognized the problem in December, but has not yet been able to obtain permits for a project to stabilize the eroding section and secure the line.
“It’s been very, very frustrating,” said STPUD spokesman Dennis Cocking.
Permits from California State Parks, California Department of Fish and Game, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Army Corps of Engineers are all necessary for the project. The urgency of the undertaking is up for debate among the agencies.
STPUD wanted to get the channel stabilized before heavy weather that raised the river’s flows hit in March, Cocking said. Though the utility district dubbed the situation an emergency at its Jan. 5 meeting and the other permits were in place, both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Lahontan Water Board did not issue permits within the time frame.
“With the slope of the river and the potential for it to erode, we were concerned that the line could’ve been washed out,” said Paul Sciuto, STPUD assistant general manager.
Though the Army Corps of Engineers never inspected the site of the pipe and made the decision using photos and information from STPUD, it did not find the situation to meet the requirements for an emergency application. The agency issued a permit for the project on April 3.
“We didn’t see the urgency behind getting the repairs done,” said Kristine Hansen, senior project manager. “Because the pipe was not broken and was not fully exposed, it did not meet our requirements.”
But, just before the rain and snow pounded the Sierra Nevada in late March, both STPUD and Lahontan knew something should be done to protect the exposed pipe from rising flows, representatives from both agencies said. With Lahontan’s input, crews from the utility district protected the pipe with 40 bags full of washed gravel. Not long after the temporary project was completed, STPUD received a notice of violation from the Lahontan Water Board.
Lahontan issued the notice because, after the quick fix, the river appeared more turbid than it should have, said Lauri Kemper, Lahontan assistant executive officer. It seemed that STPUD used gravel that was dirtier than it should’ve been in its bags, she said. It is unlikely the agency will act on the violation, she added.
Now with flows dropping, the last permit, from Lahontan, is on the horizon. The agency’s board will vote on issuing the permit at its June meeting in Barstow, Calif. Work could begin on the project in the late summer, Sciuto said.
For the 450 homes, eight businesses and one school that rely on the sewer line, as well as for the clarity of Lake Tahoe, it’s lucky that nothing happened to the line, Sciuto said.
“It’s a relief to finally be getting the permits. And luckily the conditions this spring and winter did not damage our facility,” he said. “Nobody wants to create and emergency. But when you look at the potential consequences, it’s worth it.”