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Squaw Valley: Water, Water Everywhere?

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KSL's proposed development raises a lot of questions about the future of Squaw Valley. For example, what if we end up in the nightmare scenario of too much development and not enough water?

Everywhere we turn this summer, we're reminded of the value — and the scarcity — of water in the region. Throughout Tahoe, we are living with the challenges of drought and climate change. We see the rafts pulled from the Truckee River. Our creeks run dry. The Tahoe Queen, with 300 passengers on board for a summer cruise, ran aground in July.

Think Mother Nature is trying to tell us something?

In Squaw Valley, we've been hearing about the scarcity of water for years; water resources in Squaw Valley are unreliable and insufficient. That's why the water district has sought public funding for an 8-mile pipe to suck water from below Martis Valley and import it to Squaw as a "supplemental and additional" source of water.

This summer, for example, the district aplied for state funds for Project 60 to construct a $3.6 million, 2 million gallon water tank for the Squaw end of the Martis pipe.

So why would the water district, in its Water Supply Assessment for KSL's proposed development, claim that there is enough water for a series of high-rise condos with 1,757 new bedrooms and an indoor water park?

How can they, with one hand, give a thumbs up to KSL while, with the other, pursue Project 60?

The answer, we're told, is two-fold.

One, the assessment didn't find new water in or under Squaw Valley, but it did claim more water could be pumped faster if there were new wells on KSL's property.

Two, the scope of the assessment was, by law, limited. It looked at existing and potential development to project future demand, and it reviewed past precipitation data to estimate likely supplies.

But what if those assumptions, in the real world, prove wrong?

The assessment relied on a projected occupancy rate that is, remarkably, less than 50 percent. But what if the project is built and, as KSL hopes, is wildly successful as a year-round destination with 300,000 annual visitors to the indoor water park?

Projected water supply is based on precipitation from 1993 to 2011. But the one thing we know about climate change is that the next 20 years will be very different than the last 20 years. And those projections don't even include data from the frightening reality that is our current drought.

What about Squaw Creek? In the Water Supply Assessment, Squaw Creek is dismissed as “rejected recharge” — it's given no value as the scenic focal point of the valley, as a part of the Truckee watershed, and as habitat for important Sierra wildlife.

What we do know is that the more water we pump from the aquifer, the less water flows in Squaw Creek, threatening to run the creek dry even as we plan for its restoration.

The good news is that, as part of the public environmental review process, Placer County will not be limited to the narrow findings of the Water Supply Assessment. They'll have to take a much broader look at water in Squaw Valley that includes a range of occupancy rates, the reality of the drought, the health of Squaw Creek, and the previous studies that found water supplies were insecure and insufficient.

Because maybe Mother Nature is trying to tell us something — something about planning future growth that's not out of scale with our limited natural resources.

Tom Mooers is the founding executive director of Sierra Watch. He first moved to Tahoe as a professional dishwasher in 1986 before graduating from UCLA and working for conservation groups like the League to Save Tahoe and Greenbelt Alliance. Mooers lives in Nevada City and enjoys playing in the mountains with his wife and their four enthusiastic kids.

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December 13, 2018