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Squaw Valley Eyes Martis Valley’s Water

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In an event co-sponsored by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, LLC and the Squaw Valley Property Owners Association, Chevis Hosea, vice president of development for Squaw, will present the Squaw Valley village revised plans on Jan. 18, 4 to 6 p.m., in the Olympic Valley Lodge. Alex Fisch, the Placer County planner for the village, will describe the environmental impact review process.
A no-host bar with light appetizers will follow the presentations.

The Squaw Valley Public Service District has a problem that’s preoccupied it for the past 20 years — all of its water comes from a single source, the aquifer under the Squaw Valley meadow and ski resort east parking lot. This means that in the case of an emergency such as contamination of the aquifer, there is no backup water supply to turn to. In September, the district board approved studying a preferred alternative water supply — the Martis Valley aquifer, more than eight miles away. While the district has decided to take a step back and more fully explore water sources closer to Squaw Valley, the idea of exporting water from a neighboring community is raising some eyebrows.

Ample Supply in Martis Valley The SVPSD is charged with providing a reliable water supply to its customers. As such, it’s number one goal for the past two decades has been to identify a redundant water supply that could be used if the Squaw Valley aquifer was threatened, or during peak times such as Christmas week and Fourth of July weekend.

“The water supply source is vulnerable in that we only have one source — if there was a contamination event, we would have no back-up for customers,” said SVPSD General Manager Mike Geary.

In 2009, the SVPSD completed the Alternative/Supplemental Water Supply and Enhanced Utilities Feasibility Study, which found that the district will need an additional 1,210 acre-feet of water to meet build-out maximum day demand. According to Geary, the district’s existing four wells, which currently service 1,569 residential units and 20 large commercial entities, can only produce enough supplemental water to supply 100 new single-family homes.

“That’s as much supply as we have right now,” Geary said.

But drilling more wells in the aquifer is not an option. The 2009 study stated: “Drilling new production wells within the Olympic Valley has become increasingly more difficult due to the limited capacity of the Squaw Valley aquifer to yield sufficient quantity and quality of potable water.”

The Squaw Valley aquifer, which is less than one square mile and around 150 feet deep, has an estimated sustainable yield of 1,524 acre feet of water. By contrast, the Martis Valley aquifer is 15 square miles and 800 feet deep, and the recently completed Martis Valley Groundwater Management Plan, prepared by the three agencies that draw from the Martis Valley aquifer — the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, Northstar Community Services District, and Placer County Water Agency — found that the aquifer has a sustainable yield of between 32,745 and 35,168 acre-feet of water per year, 22 times more water than the Squaw Valley aquifer. Currently, only around 9,341 acre-feet of water per year in Martis Valley, or 27 percent, is being used. Even at full build-out, the Truckee Donner Public Utility District conservatively estimates demand to be approximately 21,000 acre-feet per year.

“Martis Valley has an ample water supply,” Geary said. “If we do need to go to Martis Valley for water, it wouldn’t be the case that we were taking water that Truckee would otherwise need and negatively impacting Truckee.”

Although the 2009 study looked at side drainages along the Truckee River in the Highway 89 corridor such as Silver Creek, Pole Creek, and Cabin Creek as possible water supply sources, all of these were found to be insufficient due to water quality and quantity issues, and environmental constraints.

That left Martis Valley as the only realistic option for a redundant water supply. The SVPSD board in September approved pursuing that course of action, funded by a $225,000 grant from the California Department of Water Resources. But after the public expressed concern over the idea, Geary proposed doubling back and pursuing two phases before proceeding with Martis Valley as the preferred alternative — summarizing all redundant water sources the district looked at in Squaw over the past 20 years and identifying other sources it may have missed; and then taking a closer look at those potential water supply sources. The board approved this revised scope of work in October.

“If there are feasible sources close by, we will stop in our tracks, rewrite Phase III [Martis Valley as preferred alternative],” Geary said. “But Martis Valley is not the best alternative because we came up with it one night; it builds off of work done over the last five years.”

An Expensive Option The SVPSD has three options when it comes to getting water from the Martis Valley aquifer — it can either approach some of the water purveyors in the area for a wholesale agreement, pay a Martis Valley property owner to put in a well on their land, or purchase a small piece of property in Martis Valley and drill its own well.

Since groundwater in California is unadjudicated, there is no regulatory body that watches over how much any agency or individual pumps out of a well. It is not until there is evidence of overdrafting (when demand exceeds supply) that a judge becomes involved. As TDPUD spokesman Steven Poncelet put it: “Groundwater is a little bit of the Wild West. If you own property and want to put in a well, it’s ‘good luck.’”

The SVPSD’s Geary said the district would not need much water from the Martis Valley aquifer since it is mainly to be used as a secondary source. Even if the SVPSD shut down all of its wells in Squaw, it would only need 1,500 acre-feet of water from Martis Valley to serve its customers, including the proposed expanded Village at Squaw Valley.

The biggest hurdle in exporting water from Martis to Squaw is the expense. Geary estimates that building a pipeline along Highway 89 would cost around $30 million. The only way to make this affordable would be to partner with other agencies that want to underground utilities along the highway such as Southwest Gas, AT&T, or Suddenlink, or with Placer County as it completes the bike trail from Squaw Valley to Truckee.

An Uncomfortable Idea Although the SVPSD won’t start studying the Martis Valley aquifer as a redundant water supply in earnest until December 2014, after Phase I and II are completed, the thought of it has made some people uncomfortable.

“I personally don’t like the idea of taking water from one watershed and putting it in another,” said Ed Heneveld, a longtime Squaw resident who heads up Friends of Squaw Creek. “I understand the mandate to find a redundant water supply, but when I hear $30 million and I hear that we are taking water from neighbors, I feel it needs to be analyzed.”

Geary argues that Martis Valley and Squaw Valley are in the same watershed because any water that falls in those areas ends up in the same place — Pyramid Lake. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place.”

Heneveld would like the SVPSD to further explore water sources in Squaw and close by, such as across the Truckee River, before jumping to Martis Valley as the solution.

“Politically, ideologically, and philosophically, it rubs me wrong,” he said, “but technically I understand it.”

Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, is also wary of the idea of piping water from Martis Valley to Squaw. He worries this could not only threaten Martis Valley, but that the idea is linked to KSL’s plans to expand the Squaw village.

“While the origin of this idea predates KSL, the two are connected now,” Mooers said. “There are limited water supplies in Squaw, and the scale of development would need substantial water supplies. Martis Valley water could potentially provide this needed water supply.”

KSL has said thus far it can provide all the water for the development from the portion of the aquifer under its property. Whether this is true or not will be borne out by the SVPSD’s Water Assessment Study, which is on hold until KSL comes back with its revised development plan; the illustrated concept is expected mid-December, while the official revised plan should be out mid-January.

If the SVPSD decides to actively pursue Martis Valley’s water, agencies like the Truckee Donner Public Utility District will be watching.

“It would be something to pay attention to,” said Poncelet, noting that the TDPUD is one of the stewards of the Martis Valley aquifer. “The district is determined that its customers not be harmed.”

~ Where do you stand on the Martis-Squaw pipeline controversy? Share your thoughts below.

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Reader comments so far...

Vet's picture

Vet | Australia.
I'm glad to see the developers and locals seem to have agreed on new plans that, with ideas like ski-related activities like a water jump, should build 'soul' into the bricks and mortar. But again its a slow start to the season as the resorts move towards the lucrative Christmas holiday period. Can someone fill me in on why the '8 mile pipe' doesn't includ the "Mini Martis" plant idea. The discussions I was privy too in 2008 involved a UN-Award winning plant akin to those on my home mountains at 5,000' - with tons of snowmaking on groomers for 8000 beds + day cars + buses - at a similar latitude to Tahoe but in the sthrn hemisphere. Recycling grey water, + drawing water from creeks, on part of 40 acres near the 7/11 seemed to make sense, with pipes to the sewerage plant (rather than using trucks), road works undertaken at the same time, mass transit, a possible light rail, and upgrading water supplies for snow and fire fighting at both Squaw and Alpine Meadows. The idea seemed to be embraced by people at the Primaries in Reno in 2008. Be more self reliant, cure problems, and top up Squaw's water if need be. I was under the impression that grants would cover most costs but somehow your politics doesn't lend itself to a co-operative Masterplan of so-called fiefdoms. Since then I've watched fights over the location of the Museum that might be 'over' those pipes and locals, and debate over locating employee housing near the Sq Creek/SV Rd intersection or on the '40 acres'. So if a mini-martis plant for millions of litres of class A potable water might be useful and both good for businessand for the low season experience, think about it. As Mayumi wrote, try on change, twirl in front of the mirror and see it it fits. If it doesn't fit, c'est la vie. But if it does work, maybe there'd more terrain open, more bookings, more TOT taxes, more tips for instructors and bar staff, etc. Just saying.

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March 14, 2019