SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Reacting to a series of three natural disasters in one week, officials in this resort community closed the airport to commercial flights, blocked the main highway and warned tourists to stay out of town for the weekend.
Never before in the history of this scenic recreational mecca have city officials taken such a drastic step as to keep visitors from skiing in the mountains or playing the slot machines, local authorities said.
On Saturday night, the section of dazzling high-rise casino hotels along U.S. 50 in Stateline, Nev., looked like a modern ghost town as the bright, flashing marquees and neon signs were turned off to conserve electricity.
Since the middle of last week, most hotels and restaurants surrounding Lake Tahoe and in the Nevada capital of Carson City have remain closed, unable to operate without gas-powered heaters and cooking ranges. They do not expect to reopen until gas is restored later this week.
Casinos reported that business fell way off this weekend, typically one of busiest of the year because of the John Denver Celebrity Ski Classic at Heavenly Valley. The tournament went on as scheduled, but the crowds stayed home.
City officials in South Lake Tahoe contend they had no choice but to turn tourists away beginning on Thursday. That was when they learned that the combined effect of a ruptured natural gas main in the Truckee River, a downed power line in a remote section of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada and local flooding conditions could lead to the dumping of millions of gallons of raw sewage directly into Lake Tahoe. The broken main shut off natural gas service to 50,000 households in the Tahoe Basin and small cities outside of Reno. Officials are concerned that the electricity shortage could wipe out the sewage pumping system to nearby Alpine County. In the event of a blackout, the system relies on backup generators fueled by natural gas.
The South Lake Tahoe City Council voted Sunday evening to reopen the airport and U.S. 50 today as long as electricity consumption remains low. Officials are still recommending that tourists avoid the Lake Tahoe area until gas and electric power are restored.
The string of bad luck began a week ago when nearly two feet of rain fell in a five-day period, causing local flooding, mud slides and numerous road closures.
Rain Triggers Avalanches
Avalanches triggered by the torrential rains wiped out a major power line last Monday that supplied electricity to 20,000 customers in the Lake Tahoe area. After going without power for 14 hours, residents got their power back but were asked to substantially cut back use of electricity until the main transmission line could be repaired. The Tahoe basin, which is currently receiving about one-third its normal supply of electricity, is not expected to return to full power for another two or three weeks.
The downed power lines are located in such a remote section of the Carson Valley that Sierra Pacific Power Co. crews will have to clear a path and use helicopters to eliminate the risk of further avalanches, a spokesman said. Utility workers will then be sent into the area on snowmobiles.
The bleak outlook quickly turned into a crisis Wednesday, when a natural gas pipeline burst in the Truckee River, knocking out gas service in Lake Tahoe and western Nevada.
Gary Vogelsang said he was cleaning debris from recent flooding on his driveway near the Truckee River about 30 miles east of Reno when the ground made a rumbling noise and a large tree began to rock.
"All of a sudden it blew up," said Vogelsang, who dove under his pickup truck as rocks the size of softballs flew through the air.
The explosion ruptured the 12-inch gas pipe, which was buried under the river 20 years ago, and hurled it onto the bank.
Repair crews from Southwest Gas Corp. are working around the clock to construct a temporary pipeline four miles long, said spokesman Dante Pistone. He said workers will turn off gas meters at each of 50,000 households before pressurizing the lines and restoring service. In some homes, the meters are buried under 30 feet of snow, Pistone said. He expects gas service to resume by the end of this week.
The gas outage led water district officials to worry that 8 million gallons of raw sewage per day would spill into Lake Tahoe if a blackout occurred because residents were using too much electricity. Area reservoirs had been filled to capacity by the recent rainfall and the district's auxiliary pumps require natural gas.
In an effort to restrict the use of electricity to prevent any spillover of sewage, the South Lake Tahoe City Council on Thursday proclaimed a state of emergency.
In addition to closing the airport, the council requested that Caltrans halt eastbound traffic on U.S. 50 at Placerville. City officials also requested that all commercial lighting be reduced.