Sierra Brooks Water System: What was, what’s gotta be 060511
Sierra Brooks, the sprawling (for these parts) subdivision east of Loyalton is a monument to the optimism of the 1960s, when all America was moving to the ‘burbs. Occidental Petroleum planned a massive subdivision including a recreation and equestrian park in the area, at least the company claimed to.
Clearly there were no population and economic development trend predictions in the ‘60s, and as one would expect, most of the nearly 1800 approved lots were never developed; only about 389 lots now exist. A rope-tow was put in place to facilitate the fabulous downhill rock skiing available in the canyon, and a barn was built to accommodate horses. Much of the undeveloped land was eventually sold to California Department of Fish and Game to provide for a critter suburbia.
This optimism was all a long time ago, in terms of land use regulations. Rope tow ski lifts, also known as “nitwit de-limbing tows” can’t be used or insured in most places now. Water usage and purity regulations have also changed dramatically. However, even back then the state required a special services district, which was created in 1971.
The developer put in about six miles of roads and a water system with a well and a 200,000 gallon tank. In 1971 the developer “gave” the system to the county under the “you touched it last” doctrine.
The water system, at first, was staffed by residents, then by local handymen and maintenance workers, but as state regulations grew and the aging system required more and more technical maintenance, it became necessary to hire a qualified water systems person, which was accomplished in the early 1990s. Currently a certified person works 20 hours a week on the system, functioning as part of a more complicated administrative and maintenance program, as is required by the state.
Over the years the county has added to the water system, adding a pumping station, a well and another tank. The system includes two wells on the lower end of the development, and two tanks on the uphill end; this distance is required by the location of the water in the ground, and the most beneficial point for gravity to power distribution. Gravity “stores” the work of the pumps for more regular distribution pressures. Still, the current system has pressure issues between the upper and lower ends. In addition, the older, bolted together tank no longer meets the requirements for potable water and is reserved for fire-fighting.
The system currently supplies about 200 services. However, it is recognized that source and storage facilities are limited. The County hired engineers to assess the current system and consider improvements. The original system has several flaws, including its constituents including transite asbestos pipe. This pipe is banned in most developed nations, but is still legal in the United States. Working with the pipe presents significant problems. We’ll pause to recall it was once considered state of the art in resistance to soil, which gives us pause to wonder what hazards will one day be discovered in today’s state of the art.
The County has applied for money to rework the system, and has received a low interest loan of $2 million and a grant of $500,000 from the Redevelopment Agency. Currently, Sauers Engineering is working with the County on the documents necessary for funding and project completion.
In addition to skillfully navigating all the regulatory byways of such a project, the system General Manager Tim Beals (part of his duties as County Director of Public Works And So On) has negotiated with the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Fish and Game for tank and well locations. Mr. Beals reports that there is currently some concern on the part of the DFG regarding an access road to the tank site. If DFG fails to approve the location, a second but less desirable site will be found. The upgrade will include a new tank, a new well and pump station, new distribution lines in some locations, new fire hydrant system, and includes an extension to areas not previously served, with booster stations to equalize the high pressure at the lower end of the system. These and other replacements and improvements will prepare the system to function in the 21st Century, even if that century sees new homes built in the Brooks.
However, currently the most critical flaw in the system is the user base. While the rest of California is being restricted to about a hundred gallons per person per day, or about 4-600 gallons per household, users in the Sierra Brooks typically use many times that much water. Indeed, rates of 5000 gallons a day are not unheard of, and this small group of county residents often use over 1 million gallons a day, with power bills for the pumps running $35,000 a year. Brooks residents are spending this water as though it was what water used to be: nearly free. Residents pay $20 a month for unmetered service; contrast this to Reno where residential water bills commonly top $600 a month, or some coastal communities where water costs a nickel a gallon.
The bonds needed to repay the $2 million dollar loans, and the fee increases necessary to repay them, and to secure final Rural Development requirements, must be approved by service area residents. Water meters should be installed, and will likely be required by state water regs at some point.
The project is nearly ready for voter approval, after which the advertising, selection, and construction phases can get started. If the voters don’t approve the necessary increases, the project will fold, the money spent so far will have been wasted, and the system will remain as it is. The project already represents hundreds of hours of County staff time, which will be wasted if the new system is not improved. The increase will be at least $20 a month, and likely closer to $30, bringing the monthly water bill to about $50.00. While this might take a bite out of the budgets of some residents on fixed incomes, it represents an investment Sierra Brooks must make in itself.
There will be a series of public meetings, and past public meetings indicate that most residents understand they are paying too little, that the system needs to be updated, and that an updated system adds to the value of their investments in the Brooks.
Some in the county think it’s time for the residents of Sierra Brooks to completely take over their water system, providing the funding and leadership to manage the resource for itself. Currently, the Board of Supervisors is not asking for that, but many wish they would. There are administrative, permit and maintenance costs that the residents of the Brooks should be supporting for themselves.
Next to oil, water is becoming the most precious fluid in the state; the residents of the Brooks should take control of this resource themselves.