Squaw to appeal decision on lifts; Headwall, Gold Coast affected

OLYMPIC VALLEY - In the past, Squaw Valley USA has received stop work orders, fines and penalties.

Now the ski corporation is being told it can't use two of its new lifts after an Aug. 24, Placer County Planning Commission meeting that resulted in the revocation of the ski corporation's conditional use permit.

"These are two of our absolutely critical lifts," said Mike Livak, director of planning at Squaw Valley USA.

Built last year, the new six-person high-speed detachable lifts at Squaw glimmered in the summer light. As Livak toured the grounds of Squaw he pointed out how important these two $6-million lifts are. The Headwall lift, for advanced skiers accesses difficult terrain. The Gold Coast lift accesses a terrain for intermediate skiers.

"This whole bowl right here is accessed by this lift," said Livak, Squaw's remaining 28 lifts will be open.

The decision was made by the planning commission because of environmental impacts and "misrepresentation."

According to a Finding of Facts document by the planning commission, construction of the lifts caused "erosion and sediment runoff, and have led to violations of water quality objectives in Squaw Creek."

Squaw Creek was placed on an impaired water list in September 1999 because of large amounts of sediment found in the water.

Currently, Squaw Creek is part of a two-year study by Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board to determine the cause of increased sediment.

On Tuesday, Squaw Creek was dry because of the lack of runoff. But as Livak walked by the creek bed he said he couldn't help but wonder what taking the permit away has to do with water quality.

"We must ask ourselves how non-operation of the lifts will protect water quality," said Livak.

If Squaw fails to apply for a new conditional use permit before spring of 2001, it may have to tear the lifts down, said Planning Director Fred Yeager last week during a telephone interview.

"Lahontan claims that the chair has exerted negative water quality impacts upon Squaw Creek by contributing sediment. They base their assertion upon two grab samples that were taken following heavy thunderstorms," Livak said.

Lahontan's two-year study will show a better picture than the "grab samples,'" Livak said.

Squaw's staff test the water at Squaw Creek weekly and then sends the samples to an independent lab in Reno.

"We take a sample each week from the same location then average for the month," said Livak.

According to results from this water testing, the water quality improved during construction of the lifts. He added that during torrential rains in 1997, flood damage caused sediment runoff and damage to the construction site of the Headwall lift.

"It really just ripped this area all up," said Livak as he pointed to the hill above Headwall.

Because of the flood damage, Livak maintains what Placer County calls stream impact, had to be done.

"At the outset of the project, a plugged culvert that was damaged during the floods of 1997 was directing water flows over an access road," said Livak.

Trucks and heavy equipment driving on the road were creating mud and erosion. Squaw asked the county if it could replace the culvert and the county did not like the plans, said Livak. The ski corporation eventually replaced the culvert.

"We think this was the right thing to do," said Livak.

Not being able to use the lifts, Livak added, will not only hurt the ski corporation but it will also affect the local economy. The ski corporation may be forced to cut back on employees and skiers may choose other resorts, he added, as well as local restaurants and hotels.

Although Squaw won't say how much money it expects to loose if this decision is upheld, it did say the passenger capacity for each lift is thousands of passengers an hour.

The county maintains Squaw allegedly diverted the South Fork of Squaw Creek and disturbed more soil than it told the commission they would.

"Tell us what's wrong, what you want to see done, and we'll do it," said Livak to Placer County officials.


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