Jeff Jardine

Man-made white stuff no snow joke for resort owner

The drought jeopardized the future of Leland High Sierra Snow Play east of Pinecrest, so owner Lance Vetesy figured out how to secure rights to use the water on his property and invested in snowmaking machines.
The drought jeopardized the future of Leland High Sierra Snow Play east of Pinecrest, so owner Lance Vetesy figured out how to secure rights to use the water on his property and invested in snowmaking machines. Leland High Sierra Snow Play

It’s one of those jokes everyone spews knowing it really is absurd:

“It rained today because I washed my car yesterday.” Ha! Ha!

Explain, then, why our cars are clean but the drought stands at four years and counting?

Lance Vetesy might beat that one, though, and on a much grander scale at his Leland High Sierra Snow Play resort 39 miles east of Sonora. He just bought $400,000 worth of snow-making equipment. And now the weather folks are predicting an El Niño that could bury him in frozen assets. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Actually, Vetesy is fine with it. He’ll take snow any way he can get it. Bring it on. Because for the first time since he bought the resort 24 years ago, his livelihood won’t be at the absolute mercy of Mother Nature and her climate change/global warming flashes. With his new machinery, the days of sporadic snowfall are done testing his patience, bank account and staying-open power.

The irony? The contractor is working frenetically to complete the installation before the next storm because too much snow will make it more difficult to finish the job. Seriously.

As long as it works when he needs it, Vetesy will be thrilled. In good years, he averages 30,000 visitors a season. He stayed open only 32 days during the pseudo winter of 2013-14, and 14 days in all of 2014-15. To make things worse, every day he stared at a 12-acre lake full of water (some of it frozen) about 100 yards from his lodge. The water filling the pond comes from Leland Creek, which cuts through his property, and from the snow melt from his play hill.

The lake, Vetesy believed, could solve his dilemma if only he could use the water to make ice and spray it on his slopes. It would enable him to stay open. But as I wrote in a column a year ago, the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento steadfastly refused to allow it, even though part of the dam holding back the water is on his property and the lake was built for recreational purposes.

“The permit (for the lake) isn’t for consumptive use,” he said, meaning he couldn’t use it even though most of it would return to the lake at some point.

“It’s not just for myself,” Vetesy said, “It’s a game changer. If you are in the snow business and not making snow, you’re irrelevant. A small business can go one year and be OK. But one, two, three, four years? You just can’t do it. You have to be able to take Mother Nature out of it the best you can. The tech is out there.”

Here Dodge Ridge Ski Area lacks a water source to make snow and endured limited seasons many years while Vetesy couldn’t use the water in his front yard.

It’s frustrating in both cases because Dodge and Leland are hugely important to Tuolumne County’s economy and the Highway 108 corridor, once vibrant with restaurants and other businesses between Sonora and Pinecrest.

But poor snow years have taken their toll. Numerous eateries, shops and other small businesses that relied on the traffic generated by the snow resorts now sit empty – some of them mainstays along the highway for decades.

The old store at Strawberry – the last store on Highway 108 before Leland Meadows – closed earlier this year. Mi-Wuk Village’s Diamond Jim’s, once known for its prime rib and steaks, dealt with a fire several years ago and now is open only as a bar that serves sandwiches because the tourist economy in its current state doesn’t justify rebuilding the dining room area.

Long Barn’s indoor ice rink benefits when the snow resorts are booming, and the impact isn’t limited to the 108 corridor east of Twain Harte. Sonora’s restaurants, stores and hotels thrive, and the trickle-down reaches the Valley, where tourists pass through Oakdale and other towns headed eastward.

Clearly, Vetesy’s business affects and helps others. He literally racked his brain thinking of ways to get access to the water he needed. Then one morning, about 2 a.m., it hit him.

“I woke up thinking, ‘Who owns the water rights (to Leland Creek)?’ ” he said. The creek comes off the mountain onto his property and into culvert pipes beneath his parking lot and into the lake.

Turns out no one had ever claimed the riparian rights on the creek through that area. He contacted a water rights attorney in Sacramento, and filed for them. The state – which prohibited him from using the water in the lake to that point – granted him the rights and more. He can now keep “his” water in the Leland Meadows homeowners association’s lake, which is held back in part by his dam.

“They told me I can store it there for 60 days,” he said.

Vetesy learned a valuable lesson in dealing with government.

“Every ‘no’ you hear brings you close to a ‘yes,’ ” he said.

That hurdle cleared, he arranged for the financing for the snowmaking equipment and hired the contractor, and excavating equipment began rolling in on Oct. 3. The pipe carrying the water from the lake to the machines followed, followed by the machines themselves that rolled in last week. Within the next few weeks, he’ll be making snow and the money it brings.

“I’m so happy for Lance,” said Lisa Mayo, executive director of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau. “And its going to be a real game-changer for the entire corridor. It will help everyone.”

Because in a county reliant on tourists, snow – natural or man-made – is vital to the local economy, Vetesy’s included.

“It’s how I feed my family, put braces on the kids’ teeth,” Vetesy said.

And that is no joke.