Royal Gorge water debate heats up |

Royal Gorge water debate heats up

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunGeese swim near Ice Lakes Lodge in the community of Serene Lakes. Residents have organized to protest a proposed 950-unit project nearby.

A bitter dispute over a proposed development at Royal Gorge boiled over Friday at a meeting of the Sierra Lakes County Water District board of directors.

At a crowded meeting that was at times cordial and other times heated, the small district’s directors agreed to conduct a state-required study of the district’s water supply under different development scenarios.

But the discourse among directors, local residents opposed to the project, and representatives of the development went far beyond narrowly defined issues, raising questions about Royal Gorge’s methodology and proposed solutions.

The new owners of the Royal Gorge cross-country ski resort, Kirk Syme and Todd Foster, first proposed a 950-unit “conservation community” that would also add two downhill ski lifts and another to connect to Sugar Bowl and Royal Gorge.

The first disagreement at the Friday evening meeting surfaced over a Royal Gorge estimated occupancy rate of the new units used to predict the project’s water needs ” 46 percent.

“The Foster Syme (owners of Royal Gorge) consultant estimated 46 percent occupancy, and that’s just one example from their assessment that underestimates considerably the amount of water consumed by a new development,” said water district Director Martin Bern.

Royal Gorge Project Manager Mike Livak said the figure was just an initial estimate, based on current occupancy for the entire Serene Lakes area.

Co-owner Kirk Syme added that the development team couldn’t find official occupancy numbers to work from, and adopted the 46 percent figure after speaking to other developers who had recently gone through project reviews.

But Bern said he doubted that reasoning.

“I can’t believe the vast resources of Royal Gorge couldn’t find what I found in a matter of hours,” Bern said, “Two projects in the Martis Valley were both required to work off of 100 percent occupancy numbers.”

Livak said the development team would be open to exploring other occupancy numbers.

The developers’ proposal to dredge Serene Lakes was the next hotly contested issue.

In a report posted on, the development team contends that Serene Lakes have been altered by humans in the past, including dredging, and states that dredging would improve water quality and maintain recreation, while restoring whatever capacity might be lost from filling.

But the water district’s Bern said that the proposed Royal Gorge dredging of just under 100,000 cubic yards of material could not be compared to past dredging, which amounted to 3,000 cubic yards.

“Anything on this magnitude would not be like anything done in the past; and to say it is ” is misleading and incorrect,” Bern said.

Wade Freedle, president of the water district’s board, maintained that if the lake’s rock basin was breached during dredging, water could drain from the bottom of the lake.

As the discussion of Royal Gorge’s water needs continued, board directors and area residents spoke more loudly, and one resident stormed out of the room in anger.

“I feel like I’ve been completely led astray; I can’t believe somebody would even talk about this,” said district Director Bill Oudegeest.

As the questions continued, Syme protested that the board was being unfair in demanding answers on issues the development team hadn’t studied yet.

“You are putting us in a difficult position by asking us to comment without all the information,” Syme said. “Why would you want us to speculate? So you can back us into a corner?”

Director Bern claimed the information on dredging and water use in the development’s document was misleading, and asked Foster and Syme not to publish what he characterized as a “public relations puff piece.”

In the end, the Royal Gorge team declined further comment, instead asking the water district to wait for more information.

“We have a very long way to go. We are under no illusion that we’ve found the solution,” Livak said.

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