SALT LAKE CITY — Multiple ski resort proposals that could ultimately more than double the amount of access to ski acreage in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons has Salt Lake City raising the alarm on how the developments could impact its watershed, which supplies drinking water to nearly a half-million residents.
Jeff Niermeyer, director of public utilities, said adding a lift here, adding a lift there, putting in a new tram at one resort or establishing glide path to connect two resorts are among proposals under discussion. Some have been formally presented for review to government agencies — such as the U.S. Forest Service or Salt Lake County Planning — while others are in the talking stage.
Some projects include the development of a 200-home community at Cardiff Fork in the Big Cottonwood Canyon watershed or putting an aerial tram or lift that would connect Canyons Resort in Park City to Solitude.
"Our concern is that we have all these people right now trying to push all these individual projects and nobody is really looking at this in a holistic manner," Niermeyer said.
As the city's ultimate watchdog and caretaker of a Wasatch watershed that supplies the drinking water needs for nearly 500,000 people, Niermeyer admits he is ultra-sensitive to proposals that could threaten that supply.
Still, he said, with so many possible ski resort projects, expansions or improvements floating about, he had to sit down and put the details on a map so he could the grasp the scope of what reality might look like someday.
"Once I saw this on a map, quite honestly, it scared me. The proposed cumulative impact of all of these lift expansions could have a huge impact on the culinary water supply for Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County."
At a glance, projects Niermeyer says have been floated about or formally proposed are:
• Solitude's glide path from Canyons Resort to Solitude
• Park City Mountain Resort, two lifts in Guardsman Pass area on the Big Cottonwood Canyon side; glide path to connect to Brighton
• Solitude's expansion into the Sliver Fork area proposed to U.S. Forest Service, but rejected. Niermeyer says it could resurface if other projects gain traction.
• Solitude adding a lift from Honeycomb Canyon to the top of Grizzly Gulch area
• Alta adding another lift in the Grizzly Gulch area to extend terrain north toward Big Cottonwood Canyon and Solitude.
• Snowbird wants a new tram to connect to the Hidden Peak Tram to the top of American Fork's Twin Peaks, providing access into Mary Ellen Gulch in Utah County and a portion of White Pine Canyon in Salt Lake County.
• Private land owners are proposing a 200-home development and a lift in Cardiff Fork, a sub drainage of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
• Alta's proposed addition of another lift in Little Cottonwood Canyon at Flagstaff that would access Days Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon and to the north.
• Canyons Resort proposing a tram or lift to connect its resort to Solitude
Niermeyer says the ski lift additions put forth by resorts such as Alta or Solitude may appear innocuous enough on individual basis.
"People may ask, 'What is wrong with skiing on the snow, does that wear the water out?' But all expansions come with development proposals."
Niermeyer said ski resorts are going after the "wow factor" to compete with Colorado — envisioning some super-connected system in which skiers can access six or seven resorts in three separate canyons.
"Are we really willing to compromise our watershed for wow? I have a difficult time, but I am the water guy."
Salt Lake City has been in talks with the county and with the U.S. Forest Service to express its concerns, keenly aware that its input represents only one voice in multi-jurisdictional issue.
"We don't hold all the cards," said Laura Briefer, the city's special project manager. "Any one of these sets precedence for others waiting in the queue."
Save Our Canyons' Carl Fischer said the number of ski resort project proposals is mind boggling.
"It's absolutely unprecedented," he said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Fischer, like Niermeyer, said he believes the creep in the proposals is part of a grander vision to expand the Wasatch Canyons skiing experience.
"I find everything that is out on the table very troubling because it is going to lead to significant change to the way everyone is going to use these canyons," Fischer said. "From what I can tell it is all going to be one enormous ski resort."
Fischer and Salt Lake City, too, worries that possible revisions to a Salt Lake County ordinance related to ski resorts could open the door to developments that have been discussed. The city has fired off a three-page letter to the county's planning director, outlining concerns about proposals to fine-tune that ordinance.
Salt Lake County Public Works Director Patrick Leary said the regulations were written 14 years ago and are in need of revision.
"The issues have changed substantially over the years," Leary said. "We are looking at taking a holistic approach to this. ... We want to have a very rich discussion about it."
Ski Utah President and Chief Executive Officer Nathan Rafferty said any of the proposals out there are designed to make sure the ski resorts can meet the needs of the future.
"They are less about making the ski resorts bigger and more about getting people from one resort to another," Rafferty said, pointing to congestion and other traffic problems that already pose headaches for skiers and snowboarders.
"As we have all seen, the experience of getting to a ski area has rapidly deteriorated."
Such options that help "connect" resorts to each other could possibly solve some of those problems, Rafferty said.
"I think the time is here for some thoughtful discussions on the impacts to the Wasatch," Rafferty said. "Nobody wins if we shut things down up there or we degrade the water quality."
Gov. Gary Herbert, too, said some sort of ski resort connectivity might actually have environmental benefits — such as improvements to air quality — but such development would have to have proceed with caution and appropriate mitigation.
"Whatever we do has to be in harmony with the stewardship responsibilities we have in protecting our watersheds, our flora and our fauna," he said. "We might be able to tip-toe through the watershed with an aerial tram."
Niermeyer remains unconvinced that a lift or tram that is capable of putting 1,000 skiers on the slopes in an hour is going to do anything to alleviate congestion, or be protective.
"Those skiers need restrooms, base facilities and it all starts to expand."
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