I once asked a class of junior high students if they knew where the waste water went when they flushed the toilet. The best most of the class could do was say "Down the drain." A few could track the flow as far as the "sewer plant," but that's as far as they could say.
If you were to ask that question of adults in South Lake Tahoe, visitors and residents alike, you would hear many say the same thing and many more say, "It must go into Lake Tahoe from the sewer plant." They would be wrong.
Most people in Alpine County could do better than that, because it doesn't go into Lake Tahoe. South Tahoe's waste water, or more correctly "sewage disposal plant effluent" goes to Alpine County.
But where in Alpine County and why, you ask. Well, I'm about to tell you.
In 1969 the State of California passed a law called the Porter-Cologne Act which required all sewage on the California side of Lake Tahoe to be exported out of the Tahoe basin.
The South Tahoe Public Utility District anticipating that requirement, in cooperation with state and federal officials had already undertaken a program to do that very thing for the area it served at the south end of the Lake.
Early on there was thought given to pumping it out over Echo Summit and into the American River, but politics put the kibosh on that idea. Alpine County, having a smaller population than the counties downstream on the river, and having fewer votes, became the choice to receive the effluent. (There were technical reasons, as well.)
Design and construction of a new sewage treatment plant and an underground export pipeline began with the intent being to treat the waste water to a very high degree and then pipe it to a reservoir to be built near Woodfords, in Alpine County.
The effluent was supposed to be of drinkable quality, (at least one employee of the district made the point by publicly drinking a glass of it) so the reservoir, to be called Indian Creek Reservoir, would be a recreation lake allowing fishing, boating, and maybe even swimming.
Alpine County had a few bargaining rights, so the district agreed to pay the county $100,000 a year and also to pay for 92,000 pounds of fish every year for stocking the lake as well as rivers in the county. Some water was to be released in the spring for irrigation of ranches in the county.
The pipeline over Luther Pass began flowing in 1968, but after several years the idea proved to be impractical.
The expense of treating the waste water to such a high level, called tertiary treatment, was very expensive, and the occasional upset in the sewer plant's operation resulted in pumping partially treated effluent that polluted the reservoir. (Being high in nutrients, the reservoir produced large fish which had a peculiar taste to those who brought them home, hmmmm.)
That called for a new solution which involved the construction in 1989 of a new reservoir to be used solely for the storage of sewer plant effluent, highly treated effluent, but not treated at the tertiary level.
In that reservoir, named Harvey Place Reservoir and located just downhill from Indian Creek Reservoir, water is stored and in the spring is released for irrigation. A system of canals and pipelines delivers that nutrient rich irrigation water to ranches downstream. It's a win/win outcome for the district, the ranchers, and Alpine County.
Indian Creek Reservoir is now maintained as a recreation lake, though at a somewhat lower level, filled by fresh water from the Carson River combined with the flow from Indian Creek.
The fish are still good sized, and you can eat them now. The district continues to pay the county more than $100,000 a year which the county has cumulated as a fund for future capital investment in county facilities, and the utility district also continues to pay for fish each year for stocking in Alpine County's waters.
A few years ago, the district acquired most of the land in Diamond Valley, which is just below Harvey Place Reservoir.
This was to provide land to utilize more of the irrigation water in the event ranchers currently using the water change uses and no longer maintain irrigated fields.
This property, now known as Diamond Valley Ranch, will remain open space, in perpetuity, as irrigated ranch land or wetlands benefiting wildlife.
So, folks, you can tell your friends in South Lake Tahoe what happens to that waste water that goes down their drains. It's helping grow that fine hay and alfalfa you see growing alongside Highway 88.
My thanks go to District Land Application Manager Hal Byrd, who provided most of the information for this article.
n Bill Morgan is a resident of Markleeville.