This story was originally published by Sierra Nevada Ally.
Crystalline lake water, panoramic mountain views, historic hikes and world-renowned skiing: the region of Lake Tahoe remains an unparalleled outdoor destination for visitors and locals alike. In addition to these natural treasures, one company aims to build a water slide, roller coaster, and an indoor skydiving park. Developments such as these are currently some of the biggest threats facing the region.
Since 2011, Alterra Mountain Company, owner of Olympic Valley’s ski resort Palisades Tahoe, has aimed to make such plans a reality: the 247,000-square-foot development would include a recreation center of unprecedented scope, including water slides, indoor sky-diving, and artificial rivers. Environmental concerns such as improper water use and wildfire danger have been of the utmost concern to local nonprofits Sierra Watch and Mountain Area Preservation.
The project – referred to as The Village at Palisades Tahoe – was first approved by Placer County in 2016. Then-President Andy Wirth said in a statement the same year that approving the plan, “would lead to projects which would mitigate and repair environmental degradation from the 1950s and create millions in much needed economic stimulus in the form of full-time, year-round jobs and on-site workforce housing.”
The plan calls for $500,000 toward affordable housing plus workforce housing for 300 employees. In addition, the proposal calls for the restoration of two creeks that were altered for the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Sierra Watch swiftly took this approval to court; the county’s 3rd District Court of Appeals voted in favor of the nonprofit and ultimately rejected the plan. But the decade-long battle for Olympic Valley’s future continues. “It’s been a 10-year fight to stop this development, a great victory — and that’s the good news!” recounts Sierra Watch’s executive director Tom Mooers. “The bad news is, Alterra applied for a new round of entitlements from the same failed plan, and that’s what they’re pushing through now.”
In both the 2016 and 2022 proposals, Alterra seeks entitlements for the development of “1,493 bedrooms associated with hotel and resort residential uses…approximately 297,733 square feet of commercial uses…[and] a Mountain Adventure Camp (indoor recreation facility).” The same documents also mention “the extension of some infrastructure…and would be developed over an estimated 25-year build-out period.”
The court deemed Alterra’s initial environmental assessment for the plan inadequate, however no changes to the original project have been made, the most recent submission simply offering defenses of its original points. “To say pollutants from the added emissions would not impact the area, for example, is bogus, because there is decades worth of science to back that up.” said Alexis Ollar. Ollar is the executive director of Mountain Area Preservation, another local nonprofit working against the development. “There would be an invasive amount of development” for the region, she adds.
Sierra Watch and MAP are far from alone in their concerns. Behind Tahoe Truckee True, the campaign launched in response to Alterra’s proposal, is a 10-thousand-man grassroot army dedicated to the cause. Following the project’s revised environmental impact report in November of 2022, Sierra Watch submitted detailed comments to Alterra, along with many local individuals. “We engaged experts in hydrology, traffic, and public safety…but maybe even more importantly, thousands of citizens wrote their own comments to say what concerns they had about the development.”
Citizens expressed concerns about increased traffic, strained aquifer levels, and the need to protect a “beautiful-beyond-words sanctuary” that is the Tahoe-Truckee region.
Since the project’s initial proposal in 2011, environmental worries such as fire hazard and strained water supplies have only been exacerbated by the warming climate.
Despite the region’s recent snowy winter, portions of California still linger in drought, and the federal government is determining cuts to the Colorado River, the main source of water for residents of southern California and Nevada. The piping of water for a non-essential development such as Alterra’s brings up questions about resource responsibility.
MAP’s advocacy director, Sophia Heidrich, said the water for the indoor water park or lazy river would be taken from Olympic Valley’s aquifer. And after the last three years of drought, city hydrologists don’t know how to respond to the strain “except to be conservative in [their] projections.” While the recent winter provided a relieving amount of precipitation for the region, Heidrich shares that “The Water Supply Assessment” for the project was done before the most recent prolonged drought.
“The idea that we would literally suck water from the streams in order to build a fake, lazy river is insulting,” adds Mooers. “There is a long, multi-generational commitment to protect Tahoe, and to respect the mountains, and the idea of an indoor water park is a threat to that multi-generational legacy.”
Wildfires — another natural phenomenon intensified by climate change — threaten vast areas of wilderness in the Lake Tahoe Basin. In 2021, the largest fire in recent history, the Caldor Fire, forced thousands to evacuate the Tahoe Basin, before torching more than 346 square miles.
Mooers said the consequences of this development could be deadly in the event of a fire. Under Alterra’s own analysis, it takes approximately 10.7 hours to evacuate Olympic Valley currently, and the development would increase this to 11.1 hours, adding 22 extra minutes. “If people can’t get in on a winter day, what makes us think people will be able to get out if there’s a fire?” Mooers said.
Both nonprofits say they are not anti-development, rather aim to work alongside developers to realistically accommodate both parties. “Working with [Alterra] could solve so many issues, they just don’t listen when we say this project won’t work for us,” Heidrich said.
As of March, the comments submitted to the proposal by Sierra Watch and the many concerned locals are what impedes the project’s progress. According to the Placer County Planning Services Division, staff are currently reviewing the comments, “and will provide written responses to all comments in the Final EIR, which will be prepared over the next several months.”
“I don’t think it’s gonna be that easy for them,” said Mooers. “I think they’re learning we’re not going away.”