South Tahoe Utility requires rate hikes to fix aging infrastructure

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — To keep up with the replacement of aging infrastructure and rising construction costs, the South Tahoe Public Utility District is proposing an increase in water and sewer fees, the first increase since before the pandemic.

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

“Although it has worked for many years, it is now reaching the end of its useful life,” said Shelly Thomsen, Public Affairs and Conservation Manager, STPUD.

In 2019, the board approved maximum tax rate increases for the following five years that met California’s Proposition 218 requirements. However, due to the pandemic, the board voted not to increase tax rates in 2020 and 2021, and the tax rate increase is even less applicable now than it would have been before the pandemic.

But along with delaying rate hikes, many important capital improvement projects have also been delayed.

“As a supply system, you have to replace things regularly to be responsible,” Thomsen said.

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

A water leak in the Rocky Point neighborhood in 2021.

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

“We’ve seen a really big increase in water leaks over the years,” said Julie Ryan, chief engineering officer. “We are wasting water and large leaks are damaging private property and public roads.”

Part of the reason for the downed water lines is that funds from the last tariff increase were used to install meters.

These gauges were beneficial to the district. According to Thomsen, a third of his clients have found leaks they probably wouldn’t have found without the gauges, and they’ve seen a drop in water use across the county.

Although the gauges have been beneficial, STPUD said it is important to focus now on repairing and replacing water lines.

Ryan said that according to American Water Works Association benchmarks, the district has an actual water loss of 63 gallons per person per day, which places them in the worst seventh percentile in our area and for major leaks/ruptures per 100 miles in the district, the district had 56 leaks/ruptures per 100 miles, which puts them in the worst 10th percentile.

The sewage system is not that important, but also in need of rehabilitation. A failed sewer line recently caused a sink hole to form on Tahoe Keys Boulevard, and the district repaired over 200 water leaks in 2021.

STPUD crews acted quickly to repair a hole in the ground on Tahoe Keys Boulevard.

However, the district has a game plan to address the issues. The engineers and field workers constantly inspect the systems and create a project list. Engineers are also meeting with El Dorado County and city employees to compare upcoming projects. Thus, if an agency rips up a road, STPUD can replace its lines at the same time, avoiding the need and expense associated with ripping up a road than once.

This summer STPUD will replace a Tahoe Keys sewage pumping system and water main in the Bijou area.

The District is attempting to complete these projects at a time when everything is becoming more expensive. Construction costs have risen, as has the district’s electricity bill.

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

The district works diligently to ensure that all costs are not passed on to customers alone.

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

Over the past 10 years, the district has received $64 million in soft loans and $16 million in grants.

They also call on the federal and state governments to get involved, as they too benefit from a functioning water system. The Caldor Fire is a perfect example of the system’s importance to these agencies.

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

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

The federal infrastructure bill included about $7 million for the basin to improve firefighting infrastructure. About half of that goes to STPUD, and they’ve asked the state to increase that funding.

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

The board will decide on the increase during its meeting on Thursday 19th May.

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