The Town of Truckee Should Take the Lead on Donner Lake

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By Jack Kashtan

Alex Hoeft’s excellent article Keep Donner Blue in the November Moonshine Ink highlights Truckee’s disappointing response to the Nevada County Civil Grand Jury report “Donner Lake: A Pearl in Peril.” The report identifies the environmental damage and risks caused by runoff from the east end of Donner Ridge through the Greenpoint subdivision into the lake. The public right-of-way through the neighborhood, West Reed Avenue, diverts water, damaging private properties and increasing runoff of sediment and pollutants into the lake.

In its response to the report, the Town of Truckee asserts that because it does not maintain West Reed it has no responsibility for the runoff. Even if Truckee has no responsibility for maintaining the road, which many Greenpoint homeowners dispute, it is legally obligated to manage the drainage diverted by the right-of-way. The town asserts that dealing with the drainage would pose an unreasonable cost to taxpayers, yet it expects a handful of property owners to manage the cost.

Adding insult to injury, the February 2017 washout of West Reed Avenue was caused by runoff from Donner Lake Road, a Truckee-owned road. The repair the town so graciously made, at the insistence of the police chief, consisted of pouring sharp-edged shot rock into the breach, resulting in the destruction of a number of residents’ tires. The ultimate repair, like all other emergency repairs of West Reed, was carried out by homeowners who donated the funds. It is clear that Truckee hopes its continued neglect will force the homeowners to attempt to manage this massive drainage problem themselves, as best they can.

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One agency not mentioned in the article is the Truckee Donner Public Utility District. When it took over the Donner Lake water system it bulldozed a road to the old water tanks across the hillside above West Reed Avenue, destroying a wetland in the process and diverting drainage outside of established channels, resulting in damage to properties and increasing sediment and pollutant runoff. This road was supposed to have been restored to the preexisting condition but this has not yet been done. When we confronted the TDPUD about the issue, it at first denied the road even existed, even though it is visible on Google satellite view!

And where is the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board in all of this? Lahontan has consistently refused to take any action to require Truckee, TDPUD, or Caltrans to mitigate runoff problems, which is its mandate. When homeowners scheduled a presentation to the Lahontan board, it was canceled at the last moment, apparently under pressure from the town.

The town says the Donner Lake Interagency Partnership for Stewardship (DIPS) will handle the Donner Lake erosion issue, yet DIPS has no action item for dealing with the north shore hillside. DIPS is also an informal body with no enforcement powers, exempt from the Brown Act.

One can only speculate why our public agencies are so reluctant to deal with this serious environmental and public safety threat. Expense is surely part of it; potential liability is another. But the grand jury report makes clear that if the next major runoff event causes serious damage, the liability is likely to rest with them regardless.

The grand jury report recommends that the Town of Truckee initiate partnerships with the other responsible bodies to correct the runoff problem on the north slope of the Donner Lake Basin. In its response, the town only commits to do what it is already doing, which is essentially nothing. It rightly notes that the slope is the responsibility of many public bodies and private property owners. The problem is that when a problem is everyone’s responsibility, it is no one’s. The Town of Truckee is the most appropriate body to be the lead agency on Donner Lake, which lies entirely within its boundaries.

We urge Truckee to reconsider its decision to wash its hands off the Donner Lake issue. We do not expect it to assume the full cost and responsibility, just to take charge and act. Is this a challenge too big for our leaders to accept?

~ Jack Kashtan is a retired general surgeon living on Donner Lake with his wife Emilie. He occupies his time skiing, hiking, kayaking, woodworking, and volunteering at the Truckee Roundhouse.

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