Water district arms itself for MTBE battle
The utility district that provides most of South Shore’s drinking water will come up with a plan to respond to the effects of the controversial fuel additive MTBE, which has forced the district to lose about 12 percent of its supply.
“The district has been so impacted by MTBE that we need to look at alternative water supplies or treatment methods, or possibly even surface water supplies,” said Rick Hydrick, water operations manager for the South Tahoe Public Utility District. “We need to explore every option and exhaust every possibility to provide the best drinking water we can to our customers.”
At its meeting Thursday, the STPUD board of directors will consider establishing an interim water supply master plan for the utility district.
“The reason it’s interim is that right now we’re just concerned about the MTBE issues,” Hydrick said. “We have other parts of the system not affected by MTBE yet, and our plan will be to do our full master plan when we’re done dealing with this.”
STPUD’s water system supplies about 30,000 people through about 12,500 connections, and at times, because of tourism, the total population served is as high as 60,000.
In September 1997, STPUD had 34 wells in operation. Since then, however, 10 have been turned off because of the threat of MTBE and two more destroyed because of contamination. One new well has been drilled, but trace amounts of MTBE – 0.17 to 0.3 parts per billion – were detected in the well’s aquifer. STPUD staff is evaluating the future of the well, but in the meantime it serves as a backup if needed.
STPUD required water-usage restrictions for much of the 1998 summer.
To date, MTBE-related costs for the district are about $1.5 million. STPUD filed a lawsuit in November 1998 against several major oil companies and local gasoline providers. The firm representing the district is working on a contingency basis, and the lawsuit could take up to two years before it goes to trial.
If the board takes action this week, an international company called Boyle Engineering Corporation, who completed STPUD’s 1988 master plan, will start work on the interim plan immediately. It is expected to be completed by the end of July, with recommendations and expected costs of implementing projects. Hydrick said STPUD officials hope the plan will identify inexpensive remediation projects the district will be able to start work on this fiscal year.
Developing the interim plan is expected to cost $387,000.
MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a synthetic chemical oxygenated gasoline additive comprising about 11 percent of California gasoline. MTBE has been given significant credit for helping to reduce air pollution in California. However, it is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible cancer-causing agent. Because it has a horrible taste and odor, most people can detect it in water even below federal and state action levels.
Unlike other gasoline contaminants, MTBE travels very quickly in groundwater. It spreads at the same rate as water, and most of STPUD’s wells are shallow, accessing aquifers close to the surface.
Although not specifically contaminated by MTBE, many of the wells have been shut down because the contaminant is in their vicinity. Groundwater – and MTBE – can travel up to three times faster than normal when a pumping well is drawing it in.
MTBE also does not degrade in water like other contaminants. It has a half life of 26 years, meaning it will last in water for more than 100 years.
The regular meeting of the South Tahoe Public Utility District Board of Directors is scheduled Thursday, 2 p.m. at City Council Chambers, 1900 Lake Tahoe Blvd.
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