Kings Beach State Recreation Area, Coon Street boat launch, Secline Beach, and Steamer's Beach were opened Friday afternoon after 120,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into Lake Tahoe on July 19, when a contractor accidentally struck a 14-inch sewer main line while building a private pier.
Officials of various agencies said their first concern is the health of the public and to get the beaches back open, but an investigation has begun as to what led to the construction mishap.
"The investigation will be extensive," said Julie Regan, communications director for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, noting that there are a lot of files and paperwork to look through. "It will definitely take time. It's a serious situation and we want to make sure the investigation is thorough."
Regan said TRPA is working "hand in hand" with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. Lauri Kemper, a division manager for Lahontan, said all are working together.
"The incident is continuing until the beaches are clean," Kemper said.
The pier being built was to be shared by property owners Geoff and Christie Davis and Hans and Margaret Coffeng. Leah Kauffman, a land-use planner, consulted on the project for five years and submitted applications to the TRPA, Lahontan, the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Kauffman said a sewer line was not indicated on the map or documents submitted to the various agencies because she did not know it existed.
"As a responsible land-use planner, we rely on information received from our clients including title reports, surveys prepared by licensed professionals, review of TRPA files and documents and visits to the site," Kauffman said Tuesday. "We physically inspected the site including the surrounding area to determine if there were any 'red flags' to which we should be alerted as to any matters affecting land use and/or the project. There was nothing on the beach to suggest the presence of any kind of sewer, as the utility box and manholes for these properties are located on the highway."
Kauffman added that the title reports her clients were given when they bought their homes did not indicate there was an easement for a sewage line.
"There was nothing in the record of the sewer line's existence," Kauffman said. "My clients were not notified. They had no knowledge."
Kemper confirmed in a statement that there may not be a recorded easement in the project area.
Steve Rogers, general manager of the North Tahoe Public Utility District, said the sewer line was built in 1969, and was located four to six feet underground. In the 1960s and '70s, sewage tanks were moved out of the area and the sewer lines were placed around the lake. They did not know at the time that many areas where the pipes lay are fragile, Regan noted.
"It is extremely expensive to relocate the lines," Regan said, noting that there are 900 miles of sewer lines around Lake Tahoe.
Rogers said it will take $90 million to replace all the lines and he does not know who will pay for the relocation. Local utility agency officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were in a meeting last Tuesday discussing the lines when the spill happened, Regan said.
Another issue of concern is that Pacific Built, the contracting company from Tahoe City that mistakenly hit the sewer line, did not call the Underground Service Alert hotline required by state law before the dig. USA North, the company that operates the hotline, notifies all USA members of the project who may have underground facilities at the project site when the contractor calls.
However, Pacific Built's lawyer, Drew Briner, said he is researching whether his client had an obligation to call the hotline.
"It is an unfortunate incident," Briner said. "It is not an absolute duty to call USA. That legal issue will be answered once information is gathered."
For updated information on when the beaches will reopen, call (530) 584-1500 or visit www.ntpud.org or www.placer.ca.gov.