Lance Vetesy has spent 23 years of his life watching the winter sky and praying for snow.
He owns Leland High Sierra Snow Play east of Pinecrest. In normal to good snow years, 30,000 people will entertain themselves by riding inner tubes or other devices down his hills in a season that begins in December and ends in early March. But this drought has been cruel. Merciless, in fact.
“Last year, we were open for 32 days (over four months),” he said. “And those 32 days were sporadic. We’d be open for a few days, then close for two weeks, then open again, then close.”
The answer, he said, is very simple and makes perfect sense. His property includes a dam that holds back a 12-acre, privately owned lake that is 20 feet deep in the middle. He wants to install a snow-making system consisting of 12 hydrants and six to eight nozzles that would draw water from the lake, freeze it and spray the white stuff on his hill.
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When the season ends, the snow melts. Much of it will drain right back down into the lake. Riparian recycling, right?
Snow-making ability would all but guarantee him a full season of business every year. In fact, Vetesy said he already is approved for a small-business loan and would gladly pay roughly $400,000 to SnowMakers Inc., which made snow for the Rosa Khutor venue at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, last year.
But in California water law, nothing is simple. Vetesy himself cannot petition to change the water use restrictions on the lake because he doesn’t own the rights. The Leland Meadows Water District, formed in 1968, holds the “junior” water rights (any rights secured after 1914). Junior rights holders are controlled by the State Water Resources Control Board, which doesn’t care what makes sense. It concerns itself only with enforcing its often difficult-to-decipher regulations. The reservoir, on Leland Creek, was permitted for swimming and fishing, as are most lakes built to serve members of homeowners associations.
“(The permit) clearly restricts the water use from the reservoir to replacement of evaporation and seepage,” said Tim Moran, a spokesman for the Control Board. “That would be consistent with the original stated use of the reservoir: swimming and fishing.”
It includes no contingencies for snow-making, which, back in the pre-climate change, big-winter days of the Sierra, wasn’t an issue. Nor was the Snow Play resort nearly as popular as it is today.
Both Vetesy and Leland Meadows Water District Chairman Marvin Palmer separately approached the state to see what changing the rules would entail. They both got the same answer from the same person.
“It was going to be expensive, and there was no guarantee (the rules would be changed),” Palmer said. “It doesn’t matter that what he wants to do makes common sense. It’s a no-brainer. (The water) is going right back into the lake.”
It doesn’t matter to the state that senior (pre-1914) rights holder Oakdale Irrigation District is negotiating to sell water outside its district to pad its coffers by $3.9 million while little-guy Vetesy can’t use water from what amounts to his backyard pond in an attempt to stay in business.
Nor do the water regulators consider the impact a business like Vetesy’s has on the entire eastern Highway 108 corridor in Tuolumne County. Like the Dodge Ridge ski area, when Leland’s snow hill is closed during the winter months, the general stores and restaurants from Twain Harte to Strawberry feel the pain. The same people who go to Dodge and Leland stop at many of the places along the way, including gas stations.
State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, said the mountain county’s economics have taken a beating in recent years from the drought, the lack of snow and the forest closure due to the Rim fire. He said he will make inquiries with the Department of Water Resources on Vetesy’s behalf.
Winter is tough enough economically in the region anyway. Pinecrest and Strawberry do most of their business between Memorial Day and Labor Day. After Labor Day, tourism pretty much stops until the snow falls. Into the 1980s, lumberjacks would work in the woods until the first big snows, then go to Dodge to run the ski lifts or grooming equipment, missing few days of work in between.
In normal years, Vetesy will hire roughly 30 employees for the season – “with the possibility of adding more with snow-making,” he said. In recent years, he’s hired only a fraction of the staff.
Similarly, Dan Vaughn’s family has owned the general store at Pinecrest for 44 years. In the summers, he employs 15 people. In recent winters, he and his sister pretty much run the place by themselves.
Several businesses up and down Highway 108, including the Cold Springs Market, are listed for sale. Which is one of the reasons Vetesy desperately wants to be able to use the water behind his own dam to make the snow that later will melt and go right back into it.
“It would bring money into the community. It would help everyone in the community,” Leland water board’s Palmer said. “Everything about it is positive.”
Except, to this point, the response from the folks in Sacramento.