Drought Q&A: Why not tap Lake Tahoe?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 - 11:04 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 9, 2014 - 7:57 pm

Can Lake Tahoe water be used to ease the drought? And how can pool water be used for landscaping? Those were some of the questions readers posed to The Bee’s team of drought reporters last week. Submit your questions at www.sacbee.com/ water.

Is it feasible (politically and technologically) to pipe water from Lake Tahoe to the American River? – James Reagan, Rocklin

Let’s take the feasibility part first. Yes, it’s feasible, but it would be an expensive engineering feat.

If the choice is to pump the water, consider that the Interstate 80 and Highway 50 highway passes over the Sierra are about 1,000 feet higher than Lake Tahoe’s water elevation. These would be the lowest choices for a pipeline. That is shorter than the California Aqueduct’s climb over the Tehachapi Mountains (about 2,000 feet) but still would require massive pumps and pipelines and access to a large electricity supply.

A gravity-fed tunnel could work instead. Let’s keep it simple: Tunnel due west from Homewood to Hell Hole Reservoir. The reservoir is operated by the Placer County Water Agency, sits about 1,300 feet lower than Lake Tahoe, and drains into the American River. Such a tunnel would run about 10 miles. It’s difficult to estimate tunneling costs, but we can safely guess it would cost hundreds of million of dollars. This could be financed by water bonds if the state and water users were willing to pay.

The real obstacles are not engineering. First of all, Lake Tahoe’s only natural outlet, the Truckee River, carries water into Nevada, not California, where it terminates at Pyramid Lake. This means there are no legal water rights to use Tahoe water in California, aside from a few local uses along the river’s path to Nevada.

The other factor is that Lake Tahoe is a world-renowned ecological treasure, which brings both legal protections and strong public sentiment. The lake is known as an Outstanding Natural Resource Water, a category under the federal Clean Water Act. It is also protected by a kind of treaty, called a “compact,” between California and Nevada. This is managed by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to regulate development and protect water quality. It’s safe to say that diverting Tahoe water to California would alter the lake’s sensitive ecology and would not be permissible under the compact.

“To do anything of that nature would be met with great resistance from all the people who care about the lake,” said TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan. “Which really is the icing on the cake.”

– Matt Weiser

What’s the rationale for limiting car washing to Saturday or Sunday? I understand limiting landscape irrigation to weekends because people forget to reset their sprinkler timers and violators are more visible and the rule more easily enforced. But it’s hard to imagine that many people wash their car more than once a week. – Larry McGuire, Sacramento

This rule applies to the city of Sacramento and its emergency measures to conserve water during the drought. On Jan. 14, the City Council mandated that residents and businesses cut consumption by at least 20 percent. The rules include limiting outdoor irrigation and car washing to weekends.

Why include car washing?

It was the council’s idea, said William Granger, Sacramento’s water conservation administrator. “The City Council thought it would be easier for enforcement (to limit car washing to Saturday or Sunday). On March 9, it switches back to the odd/even schedule.”

Sacramento focuses its conservation enforcement on the outdoors, where about 65 percent of residential water is used. Under Stage 2 water restrictions, residents are asked to limit car washing to the same days they’re allowed to water their landscapes. Right now, it’s one day on weekends.

On March 9, residents with odd-numbered addresses will be able to irrigate landscapes and wash cars on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Residents with even-numbered addresses will be restricted to Wednesdays and Sundays.

Initially, the council also mandated that residents use a bucket to wash cars, instead of a hose. Now, hoses are allowed if they’re equipped with a shut-off nozzle.

“Even better, use a commercial carwash,” Granger said. “These businesses recycle their water.” And commercial carwashes are not restricted to specific “water days”; you can get the car clean whenever you want.

– Debbie Arrington

This story was changed Feb. 24 to correct that the Hell Hole Reservoir is operated by the Placer County Water Agency.



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