Collaborative Partnership Fosters Adaptive Management: From TMDL implementation to Squaw Creek meadow restoration

Incised banks (above) disconnect floodplain hydrology, while subsurface flows leave little water for habitat during the late season. Connecting wetland pools will help restore hydrologic function and thus increase aquatic habitat. Photo courtesy Katrina Smolen.

Incised banks (above) disconnect floodplain hydrology, while subsurface flows leave little water for habitat during the late season. Connecting wetland pools will help restore hydrologic function and thus increase aquatic habitat. Photo courtesy Katrina Smolen.

Spring 2016 Ecesis, Volume 26, Issue 1

Squaw Creek and the montane meadows of Olympic Valley are iconic of Sierra watersheds with prominent visibility as an international tourist destination. As Squaw Creek winds its way down from the Pacific Crest to the Truckee River, three landowners account for about 90% of the watershed’s land base. The watershed is home to the internationally acclaimed Squaw Valley Ski Area and the site of the 1960 Olympic Games. The protection, restoration, and enhancement of the Squaw Creek watershed warrants participatory collaboration amongst these landowners for the mutual benefit of the resource. Squaw Creek was identified as impaired with excessive sediment in 2002 and placed on the States' 303d listing. Lahontan Water Board adopted a resolution amending the Basin Plan to establish a Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) program to control sediment in Squaw Creek, Placer County, on April 13, 2006; this TMDL was proposed and ultimately adopted by the EPA July 2007. 

Similar to many watersheds, Squaw Creek and meadow have been negatively impacted by an abundance of past land-use and channel modifications. Extensive cattle and sheep grazing management in the late 19th century altered natural vegetation patterns, compacted sensitive meadow soils, straightened and simplified the lower channel, and isolated extensive and highly functional meander belts on the remnant floodplain. War training and airfield construction exercises by the US military in the late 1950s removed large boulders (glacial erratics) from the meadow as they graded portions of the meadow and floodplain. Development for the 1960 Olympics altered the natural confluence of the two main tributaries, the North and South Forks, and created a trapezoidal channel that altered the hydrologic and sediment regime entering the Lower Squaw Creek site. The lower meadow was substantially graded and drained in a manner that continues to adversely impact its ecologic function. Residential homes, with associated utilities and road construction, have altered hillslope runoff patterns and timing throughout the watershed. Climate change and fire suppression practices have affected the surrounding forest density and resultant snowmelt accumulation and runoff patterns. Placing a golf course in the meadow has isolated segments of the natural floodplain area in the upper meadow. Poorly designed channel stabilization treatments following the 1997 flood are ineffective in many locations and the source of unintended erosion problems throughout the meadow. 

Local community alarm was sounded in the 1990s as conditions in the creek continued to deteriorate. Namely, loss of the last spawning brown trout in the creek and more frequent and severe drying of pools in the fall season resulting from reduced instream flows in this Sierra watershed. Wanting to understand the causative factors as well as what could be done to remedy this blatant deterioration, the Friends of Squaw Creek (FoSC) was formed in 2002 under the leadership of longtime Squaw Valley resident, Dr. Ed Heneveld. The group invited local concerned community residents, regulatory agencies, experts in creek restoration, and the primary riparian landowners to see if there were opportunities to improve conditions. 

In 2007, with the EPA’s approval of the Lahontan Water Board’s TMDL, data-driven adaptive management was able to move beyond enforcement to implementing effective mitigation measures that protect, restore, and enhance the watershed. The TMDL for sediment recognized ski-runs and dirt roads as primary sediment sources, with urban runoff and road sand as secondary sources. Implementation of the TMDL focused on tracking compliance with existing regulatory actions and monitoring channel bed conditions in Lower Squaw Creek. Target instream conditions included a relative decrease in fines and sand, increased size of bed material, and higher bioassessment scores. Squaw Valley Resort, Resort at Squaw Creek, and Placer County jointly assumed responsibility for biennial benthic macroinvertebrate sampling in Olympic Valley. Bioassessment monitoring occurred in 2010, 2012, and 2014, and results are included in the Truckee River Annual Water Quality Monitoring Report. Participatory partnerships are essential for the development and implementation of restoration and monitoring regimes to meet the TMDL implementation measures. 

FoSC has continued to foster conversation, collaboration, and dissemination of information in an effort to enable shared science and compatible restoration within the watershed and to achieve the goals set forth in the TMDL. For the past decade, by engaging the community and listening to comprehend project limitations with each stakeholder, FoSC Director Dr. Ed Heneveld has rallied all parties to the table to build a common vision. “We did a lot of ‘feel good’ projects, like creek cleanup, rip rapping culverts, willow planting in the riparian banks, and pulling tall whitetop invasive weeds,” recalls Heneveld. “FoSC was committed to restoration planning within the ‘existing constraints’ of the lands owned by the businesses. Those constraints include the existing trapezoidal channel used to build a parking lot for the Olympics and the (now) existing golf course in the meadow. Fully restoring the creek to its original channel was always the best idea but we had to acknowledge that that was not going to be feasible.” 

FoSC has board representation from each of the three primary riparian landowners as well as two community representatives. It is a working group representing the diverse interests of all stakeholders, including landowners, agencies, and technical experts, and provides a venue for education, planning, and coordination by hosting public meetings and scientific forums as well as pursuing grants to accomplish its goals. Landowners’ participation is incumbent on the involvement of Squaw Valley Resort, Squaw Valley Real Estate, Poulsen Commercial, and the Resort at Squaw Creek. Sustainable solutions are generated by a working technical advisory committee comprised of private, public, and non-profit entities with the scientific expertise of fisheries biologists, hydrologists, and geomorphologists. Project partners include Trout Unlimited, Friends of Squaw Creek, Placer County, Truckee River Watershed Council, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Poulsen Commercial, Squaw Valley Resort, Resort at Squaw Creek, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, Sound Watershed Consulting, Balance Hydrologics, and Hydro Restoration. 

Today, as a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization, FoSC is an MOU Signatory of the July 2014 Tahoe-Sierra Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) plan and a strong proponent of Squaw Creek meadow restoration. Squaw Creek meadow restoration is a top-ranked project in the IRWM’s Restoration category and contributes to IRWM goals by addressing water quality, ecosystem restoration, and integrated watershed management. Drawing on the initial 2005 conceptual plans developed by Philip Williams and Associates under initial Placer County funding, restoration planning is moving towards final design and implementation. Sound Watershed Consulting advanced the conceptual modeling with grant support from Sierra Nevada Conservancy as well as the Lahontan and State Water Boards. FoSC has recently secured additional project funding for holistic restoration of the upper and lower meadow reaches through a DWR Prop 84 IRWM Grant, the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, and National Forest Foundation. With an iterative approach to adaptive management — ongoing monitoring of surface water, ground water, and biologic indicators — data is driving decision-making before and after restoration, demonstrating an integration of watershed management and a collaborative solution-oriented approach among the key stakeholders: Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, the Resort at Squaw Creek, and Placer County.

The Squaw Creek Meadow Project amplifies the ongoing TMDL implementation driven by Squaw Valley Resort. To date, approximately $2 million has been spent in the past decade on upper mountain revegetation and Best Management Practices (BMPs), under the guidance of Professional Hydrologist Katrina D. Smolen of Hydro Restoration. Approximately $300,000 is spent annually for new and existing construction project BMPs. Extensive water quality and erosion monitoring programs are in place and reviewed quarterly by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. As part of the Village at Squaw Creek development plan, Squaw Valley Real Estate has a substantial plan to enlarge and enhance the existing Squaw Valley Village. The developer, under the design guidance of Balance Hydrologics, has proposed a $2 million creek restoration commitment in the “village reach,” from the confluence of the North and South forks of Squaw Creek and through the trapezoidal channel and its outflow, upstream of the meadow. 

The Resort at Squaw Creek is proposing to expand its property with Phase 2 developments, which includes stabilizing meadow reaches of the creek in an effort to protect its golf course infrastructure, and draw from additional wells to reduce pumping impacts on the creek, as prescribed by the TMDL. The Resort is collaborating with FoSC to restore existing relict channels and historic wetland meadow sites. 

As the developers pursue their objectives, FoSC is participating in the planning process to coordinate  the synthesis of a watershed-wide vision and restoration plan. Perseverance has been key to FoSC’s recent successes, as changes in landowner administrative staffing and county employee turnover have disrupted some of the flow of the process. Heneveld admits, “One of our biggest challenges over the years has been personnel turnover at both Ski Corp, the Resort, and Placer County. This has proved difficult but we have generally had good cooperation.” Even during these transitions, FoSC has continued monitoring and education within the community. Landowners understand that the TMDL wasn’t going away, and neither were their requirements to implement it. Ultimately, the goal of a sustainable watershed which also provides recreational opportunities in a natural settting has served as a common bond. FoSC’s new alliance with Trout Unlimited (TU) has been valuable in obtaining and administrating grants. As TU’s California Field Director, Dave Lass reveals “Bringing diverse interests together to solve complex problems that recover coldwater fish species is at the core of what TU does. Restoring the aquatic functions in Squaw Creek will reverse the negative trends that currently impact fish, wildlife and water quality, while providing a new resource to the people who live and visit Squaw Valley, the Truckee River, and downstream communities. Working with a group of people who understand these issues and who are committed to forging ahead in the face of known and unknown adversity has been a real joy.” Establishing a collaborative planning process, driven by the ultimate goal of doing what is best for the watershed, will be best for both the developer and the community. Recognizing inherent constraints while advocating for ecologic restoration principles has allowed FoSC to become an essential and credible leader in the stewardship of the watershed. — by Katrina D. Smolen, P.H., ToR QSD, Hydro Restoration