Contact: Tom Mooers (530) 265-2849 x200
October 25, 2023
NOT ENOUGH WATER FOR A WATERPARK
There are a lot of reasons why Alterra Mountain Company’s proposed development in Olympic Valley would be bad news for Tahoe. It would add too many cars to our existing traffic mess, pollute Lake Tahoe, make our workforce housing crisis worse, and create a wildfire safety nightmare.
Also: there’s simply not enough water.
For decades, would-be developers, local residents, and water providers in Olympic Valley have raised concerns about limited supplies and even sought alternative sources of water. No solution has been found; instead, in an era of drought and climate change, the problem just gets worse.
And to move forward with another round of entitlements for Alterra’s old proposal – based on an outdated Water Supply Assessment – poses a direct threat to anyone with a faucet in the valley, let alone to our creeks, meadows, and watershed.
Here’s some background on the issue of water supplies in Olympic Valley and some of what Sierra Watch is doing to protect existing residents and natural resources.
Limited Supplies in a Narrow Mountain Valley
Olympic Valley (formerly Squaw Valley) lies between Lake Tahoe and the Town of Truckee. The glacially-carved watershed runs 2.5 miles long and less than half a mile wide. Its waters flow down the mountain and through Washeshu Creek east to the Truckee River.
Water supplies depend on annual recharge from each winter’s snowpack– notoriously difficult to predict and increasingly tough to rely on.
Alterra’s Village at Palisades Tahoe Specific Plan, first proposed back in 2011, would transform Olympic Valley and remake Tahoe-Truckee with development of a size, scale, and scope the region has never seen. It would include a series of high-rise condo hotels and a 90,000-square-foot indoor waterpark with artificial rivers, indoor water-skiing, and North America’s tallest indoor waterslide. The waterpark would attract 300,000 visitors annually.
All told, the project would add 3,300 new daily car trips to North Tahoe roads. And it would demand more than 78,000,000 gallons of water annually.
Claims of Sufficient Supplies and Attempts to Find More Water
The limits of local water supplies has long been a concern in the valley – for residents, for the ski resort, for would-be developers.
And, even though the waters of the Sierra are enjoying a boost from last winter’s snowpack, there is a growing understanding that, in an era of drought and climate change, we’ll have less snow in the decades to come.
Over the last twenty years, there have been sporadic efforts to seek water from other sources to increase supplies, none of which have succeeded – as development pressures drive up demand.
In 2003, the Valley’s primary water provider, Olympic Valley Public Services District (OVPSD) filed for rights to the Truckee River.
In 2009, OVPSD launched an effort to fund and build an eight-mile pipe to draw “supplemental and additional” water from Martis Valley and pump it into Olympic Valley.
In a 2014 request for $36 million to fund the Martis Pipe, the water district claimed, “Drilling new production wells within the Olympic Valley has become increasingly more difficult due to the limited capacity of the (Olympic) Valley aquifer to yield sufficient quantity and quality of potable water.” That effort ran aground; the request was withdrawn in 2017.
Yet meanwhile, in 2015, as part of the planning process for Alterra Mountain Company’s proposed development, the OVPSD issued a Water Supply Assessment, claiming the local aquifer could – without new supplies – meet all projected 2040 demands without seeking any appropriative water right permits from the State Water Resources Board.
Based in part on the findings of that assessment, Placer County granted development entitlements to Alterra (then KSL Capital Partners) in 2016. But, after a court challenge by Sierra Watch, those entitlements were rescinded in 2022. Alterra responded by seeking a new round of entitlements for the exact same project, with no changes in its size – or in its projected demands on water.
Placer County issued a Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project in November 2022. Incredibly, that document seeks to rely on the old 2015 Water Supply Assessment. It’s a head-in-the-sand approach that puts Olympic Valley – its residents and its resources – at risk.
Earlier this year, more than 2,600 non-profits, regulatory agencies, and individual citizens provided comment letters on the Revised Draft EIR. More than 99% expressed opposition; many – including the OVPSD – pointed to limited water supplies as a key concern.
Truckee River Water for an Indoor Lazy River?
As we wait for County decision-makers and Alterra to respond to those comments, Sierra Watch is hard at work. We’re engaging experts, increasing awareness, and ensuring that new infrastructure doesn’t encourage – or subsidize – Alterra’s proposed development.
Case in point: this summer, Sierra Watch protested an old application to divert new water from the Truckee River to potentially serve future development in Olympic Valley.
In 2018, the OVPSD renewed its 2003 application to the State Water Resources Control Board for rights to the Truckee River, seeking to “divert water from the Truckee River system” for “municipal” use.
The request for new rights acknowledged the limited supplies of local water, claiming “the surface water would supplement existing groundwater supply in the District (OVPSD) to provide a reliable supply for planned future populations, and add redundancy in the state of an emergency.”
Sierra Watch engaged experts to research and file a protest to the OVPSD’s application in June, pointing out that under California law, any water diverted from the Truckee River must be for a beneficial use.
We argued that, instead, diverting Truckee River water for municipal use could encourage the construction of Alterra’s project, which, in turn, would have devastating water quality and other environmental impacts: increased demand and pumping would drain Washeshu Creek and de-water the famous meadows in Olympic Valley. New development would increase the pollution that is robbing Lake Tahoe of its clarity. Diversions from the Truckee River would result in reduced in-stream flows in the river itself. None of which could be considered beneficial.
In September, the OVPSD withdrew its application. This is good news for the Truckee River and its watershed.
But this episode proves a bigger, challenging point: in Olympic Valley, there is simply not enough water for Alterra’s massive development. Responsible planning requires an honest, up-to-date assessment of future water supplies. And Sierra Watch is committed to making sure our limited water resources are not wasted on a waterpark.
Thanks for being part of that shared commitment. We’ll keep you posted!