By Sean Barclay
Looking out my office window during a storm, it’s hard to imagine the threat our community is facing from wildfire. If you live here, you know that the survival of our communities is threatened by wildfire. As the general manager of the Tahoe City Public Utility District, this threat is never far from my mind: Many neighborhoods in our service area back up to forested lands, mostly owned by the state or federal government. The TCPUD plays a vital role in protecting our communities through the critical water infrastructure we manage.
TCPUD is a small, rural Special District serving 5,751 water customers across 31 square miles on Lake Tahoe’s North and West shores, directly in the middle of the Wildland Urban Interface. The history of TCPUD’s complex water system dates to 1938, when we were founded to provide water service to summer cabins and the few year-round customers.
Many of the water systems TCPUD acquired since then were developed between the 1930s and 1950s. These systems were built to provide domestic summer water, but were not designed to meet the current volume of year-round use, nor, and more critical today, to meet fire suppression needs.
Over the years, the TCPUD has replaced much of this outdated infrastructure with new infrastructure designed to meet domestic water supply needs as well as modern firefighting standards. We still have work to do.
This water system development story is not unique. Much of the Tahoe Basin experienced the same pattern of water system development, and significant portions of the Basin still have systems incapable of providing flowrates and capacities to meet modern firefighting standards. This patchwork of public and private water systems represents a serious deficiency in our ability to supply and move water critical to protect lives and structures during a wildfire event.
The 2007 Angora Fire highlighted the dangers of this distribution infrastructure. The impacts of this fire were devastating; it destroyed 258 homes and left limited access to the local domestic water. In response, water agencies around the Basin in both California and Nevada formed the Tahoe Water for Fire Suppression Partnership, which, in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and with California and Nevada congressional delegations, accelerated the installation of critical infrastructure to improve water distribution, storage systems, and regional interconnectivity to build capacity for fire suppression.
Between 2009 and 2017, the partnership received about $16 million in federal funding that was matched with $32 million in local funds to implement critical water supply projects around the Basin, all with a nexus to fire protection. This investment increased storage and distribution capacity by accelerating the replacement of undersized waterlines, construction of water storage tanks, and installation of fire hydrants at appropriate intervals. On the South Shore, these critical investments, combined with proactive forest management projects, proved instrumental during the Caldor Fire, as not a single home was lost in Christmas Valley.
Much work remains given the ongoing wildfire threat. The TCPUD, along with North Tahoe PUD and South Tahoe PUD, are projecting more than $64 million in water system improvements over the next five years, focused on improving water infrastructure for fire suppression.
This number does not include investments in the many small, private, and mutual water systems within or adjacent to each municipal agency’s jurisdiction. Many of these small systems lack the capacity to provide sufficient fire flows and are disconnected from the neighboring municipal water systems because of a lack of pipeline capacity and inter-tie infrastructure.
The infrastructure investment required to upgrade the water systems of the Tahoe Basin is beyond what can be financed through ratepayer revenue alone due to the rural, low-density nature of the systems. The historic land acquisition by state and federal agencies to preserve open space and sensitive lands limits the number of ratepayers (i.e., connections) per linear mile of waterline in the Tahoe Basin compared to other areas in California. This issue is compounded again when factoring in the costs of consolidating the aging, small private systems located throughout the service areas of the Tahoe municipal water agencies.
The TCPUD, North Tahoe PUD, and South Tahoe PUD have prioritized water infrastructure investment and advocacy efforts to generate state and federal funding crucial to increasing the pace and scale of investment in critical water infrastructure for firefighting — and we need your help.
We need projects that create more fire-resilient communities and benefit our entire region. Given Lake Tahoe’s importance in California’s history, environment, and economy, now is the time to support investment in water infrastructure projects locally.
Make your voice heard — share your strong support with your local elected representatives for water infrastructure improvement projects and ask your state and federal representatives to fund water infrastructure for fire suppression improvements.
The continued existence of our amazing mountain community depends upon it.
~ Sean Barclay is the General Manager of TCPUD, a California Public Utility District serving Lake Tahoe’s North and West shores with water, sewer, and parks and recreation services. He is a licensed professional land surveyor in California and Nevada, and has a B.A. in Economics from California State University, Chico.