Sometimes keeping it simple just won’t work.

The Mission

As many of you that visit this site know, I am passionate about preserving Van Norden Lake and its surrounding wetlands. For the last year I have been advocating this preservation and what I considered a simple plan to maintain the back bay area of the lake. The rationale of the plan was to provide a simple, sustainable and relatively inexpensive solution that would result in removing the current dam from jurisdiction and maintain the open water and surrounding wetlands. The hope was that this solution would satisfy the state of California and more importantly, the US Forest Service which is slated to take over ownership of the Summit Valley in the next two years. I will be the first to say that I am not an engineer, but that there did appear to be a simple, common sense way to partition the lake and maintain the wetlands. I have been presenting this plan for the last six months and was gratified at the positive response it received.

The Verdict

I presented my plan to the new owners of the property, Truckee-Donner Land Trust (TDLT), early this year and they agreed to give it serious consideration. They circulated the plan to the various governmental agencies as well as the US Forest Service. TDLT also had Balance Hydrologics, the company they hired to study the problem, review the plan. On July 18 th we (Bill Oudegeest and I) met with Perry Norris and John Svahn from TDLT and David Shaw from Balance Hydrologics to discuss the plan. Here is a summary of my take away information from this meeting.

We were told by Perry at that meeting that the plan had been reviewed by many different people and agencies including the US Forest Service, California Division of Dam Safety (DSOD), California Fish and Wildlife and their dam consultant from Holdrege and Kull. David Shaw explained that any structure would need a grading permit and would require that it be an engineered structure and a simple earth and boulder barrier would not suffice. David also said that there would be an extensive permit process involved in building such a dam. The bottom line was that they estimated a fully engineered dam would cost a minimum of $1 million dollars to design, permit and construct and would require ongoing maintenance costs. There is also the probability that this dam would still be under the jurisdiction of the state.

This information could not have been more disheartening for me. Maybe I was being naive, but my plan was specifically designed to alleviate the need for an engineered structure and the costs  that would be involved in building and maintaining such a structure. The plan also was designed to remove any state jurisdictional dams on the property. I am a data driven person, however, and given this data I have to reluctantly accept that my plan is untenable if it will not be accepted by the regulating agencies. With this is mind, I will be removing my literature that I have posted on the web concerning my plan to prevent any ongoing confusion.

Where to we go from here

Unfortunately, the dam has created a difficult situation for everyone. While it has created a beautiful seasonal lake and wetlands in the Summit Valley, its current condition threatens the very beauty it has created. Governmental regulations have left TDLT with a tough and probably more important, expensive problem. It is unfortunate that as with most things in life, it comes down to the money. It is clear that building and maintaining a secondary engineered dam is beyond the financial resources of the TDLT. As I have presented before, in my opinion there is very little chance of removing the dam from state jurisdiction and maintaining the back bay of the lake and its wetlands. Balance Hydrologics is performing a depth analysis of the lake to determine how much water it contains, but according to my analyses reducing it to below 50 acre-feet will require draining the back bay area. David Shaw thinks that there may be some ways such as plug and pond techniques to mitigate the loss of some of the wetland area, but for me the final configuration will mean the loss of the open water in the back bay and probably a majority of the existing wetlands around it.

So we are all left with a perplexing dilemma. The problem of the dam and lake has turned out to be a much larger problem than any of us expected, including TDLT. It still remains to be seen how the environmental impact studies involved in the CEQA process will assess the drastic changes that would be involved in reducing the size of the lake. The CEQA process will include public input that we can all participate in, but it is clear that the limited resources of the TDLT would be overwhelmed by a long and contentious process. I have been told that delays in the CEQA process could result in the loss of available federal funding which could result in the failure of the property to be transferred to the US Forest Service and threaten the money set aside for stewardship of the entire property.

Given the magnitude of the problem, my current position is that trying to fix a problem that has been around for almost 40 years cannot really be sufficiently addressed in a short two year timeframe before the land is transferred to the Forest Service. I believe that it makes much more sense for the disposition of the Summit Valley be managed by an agency like the US Forest Service that has the resources to thoroughly study and subsequently manage a long term solution to the current dilemma. Moreover, as the future long term owners of the land, they will be the stewards of whatever solution is implemented. It would make sense that they should be the ones to make the important decisions. I am therefore advocating that rather than having the TDLT make decisions in this short timeframe with only limited resources, the disposition of the Summit Valley be left to the final stewards of the land, the US Forest Service. I would urge that either the transfer of the land be accelerated or an extension from the state of California be obtained to delay any actions until the transfer takes place.

I would urge anyone that is interested in the disposition of Van Norden lake to attend the outreach meeting being held by TDLT on July 29th at 9 am at Judah Lodge at Sugar Bowl. TDLT will be presenting the data that has been collected so far on the Summit Valley and the dam. I would like to thank everyone for their support of my efforts on behalf of the lake and let you know that I will continue to explore every possibility to preserve it. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions concerning the lake.


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