Water may cement future development deals at Squaw
TAHOE CITY — John Chisholm has witnessed Squaw Valley’s evolution since moving here in 1955. Ski Corp. grew from a small resort with one lift and two rope tows to a 31-lift resort of Olympic caliber; the 400-room Resort at Squaw Creek was constructed along with an 18-hole golf course on half the meadow; and the number of homes more than doubled.
Despite all of this, Chisholm is realistic about growth. “You can’t put a lid on development,” he said. “All you can do is try to save some of the beauty that was here.”
With more development on the horizon for Squaw Valley, the challenge facing many residents is how to do just that — preserve the valley’s unique features while making room for the inevitable.
Slow-growth proponents like Chisholm see Squaw Valley’s limited water supply as nature’s answer to constraining future construction. Developers and service district officials on the other hand say there is enough water. Hanging in the balance may be the fate of Squaw Creek and the valley.
Carl Gustafson, who has lived in Squaw Valley since 1963, is worried Squaw Valley can’t sustain any more development. For the past 40 years, Gustafson has been monitoring Squaw Creek as a concerned citizen. In 1992, 1994 and 2001, he saw the creek dry up and its fish die. In an attempt to save the remaining fish, he spent hours transferring them to larger pools of water.
“I have a personal stake in the creek,” says Gustafson, who estimates he spent more than 300 hours relocating fish. “Then I look up the valley and see all this development — it doesn’t make me feel good.”
Whether the cause of the creek’s problems is natural or man-made is unknown. Gustafson, however, attributes the creek’s decimation to development, which he says monopolizes the groundwater supply and dumps sediment into the creek.
“The developers are in total denial. I don’t think they care. They know where their paycheck is coming from,” said Gustafson, pulling out a photo he took of dead fish laying next to a golf ball and lift ticket in a dry creek bed.
Another concern is that Intrawest’s plans to put in a four-level parking structure and surface parking lot near the Far East ski lift will harm sensitive wetlands and water wells. Chisholm calls this the “latest hot point” in Squaw Valley.
But Intrawest says it’s doing everything by the book. Not only have the Far East parking lots been extensively reviewed in the environmental impact report and California Environmental Quality Act, but the company says it’s taking the community’s interest into consideration in building the entire four-phased, 13-acre project.
“Our goal is to provide the water necessary to do development in a form and fashion that meets the community needs,” said Vice President of Intrawest Resort Development Group Tom Jacobson. “We follow what is recommended by the Squaw Valley Public Service District board.”
Some residents worry that when Intrawest’s village, with its 70 businesses and 640 residential units is completed in 2006 it will be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“We don’t have enough water for all this,” said Ed Heneveld, chairman of the Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council. “Phase II, III, and IV of Intrawest will put us over the top.”
Aquifer provides water
Squaw Valley gets its water from an aquifer underneath the meadow and the parking lot. Currently, there are three main entities that pump water from the aquifer — the Resort at Squaw Creek, Squaw Valley Mutual Water Company, and the SVPSD. The district, which provides water to the majority of the valley, gets most of its water from four wells located on the east side of the parking lot.
The SVPSD says there is enough water in the valley for future development, but its current production capabilities prevent it from providing water to any new projects. The district’s wells can only supply 65 percent of the 2,091 acre-feet of water needed for build-out, which SVPSD General Manager Rick Lierman estimates is about halfway to completion. However, according to a groundwater study done by the district, the SVPSD could almost double its water supply, from 873 to 1,640 acre-feet of water, if five more wells were built. The district, which does not own any property suitable for well development, is leaving well construction up to the developers.
“Our goal is to maintain and operate existing wells,” Lierman said. “We are not going to develop additional water supply for new developers.”
Three years ago, the SVPSD cut off water supply to new projects. The last developments it agreed to serve were the 4-unit subdivision, Meadows End Court, and the 24-unit Masa Ti. Although there has been speculation the district does not have enough water for Intrawest Phase II, Lierman refutes that notion. However, Intrawest must produce its own well supplying at least 150 gallons of drinkable water to proceed with Phase III and IV.
Intrawest’s Jacobson is confident the water can be found.
“There is lots of water, just getting it to be potable, that’s the key,” he said. “I believe the full build-out of the village is completely feasible.”
Concerns about the creek
In building a new well, developers must meet certain criteria established by the district. The well must not negatively impact any existing wells, the aquifer, Squaw Creek, or cause contamination. The feasibility of achieving those standards while producing quality drinking water remains unclear.
The SVPSD is waiting for the second part of its $750,000 groundwater study, due out in two years, to determine the exact relationship between water usage and Squaw Creek.
In the meantime, developers with preexisting wells have an advantage. PlumpJacks, which has a small well for irrigation, plans to add 34 luxury units along with a spa and underground parking. The Resort at Squaw Creek, which has a well for irrigation and Ski Corp.’s snowmaking, has plans to build phase II of the resort with 300 units. Whether the two companies’ wells are sufficient to supply drinking water without harming Squaw Creek is uncertain.
The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board is also concerned.
“There is no doubt (pumping water out of the aquifer) will have impacts,” Jerry Peacock, an engineer with Lahontan, told the Tahoe World newspaper in November 2001.
One thing is for sure. The SVPSD will not be providing either PlumpJacks or the resort, already the district’s single biggest customer, with water.
“We have no water for them at this time,” Lierman said.
This gives development opponents a ray of hope.
“All you can do is pray that the water-shortage angle will slow or stop development,” says Chisholm as he looks up to the sky.
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