E. coli, coliform bacteria found in Squaw Valley drinking water at upper mountain

originally posted on November 29, 2016


OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — You can shred the gnar or ski the slopes — but whatever you do, don’t drink the water.

After a recent spate of cold and snowy storms, Squaw Valley opened its upper mountain region Tuesday to allow top-to-bottom skiing, despite concerns the drinking water at the High Camp and Gold Coast Funitel areas of the ski resort is not safe for consumption.

“Placer County Environmental Health has been working with the Squaw Valley Resort regarding a bacterial contamination issue with their water wells affecting the Upper Mountain area,” Wesley Nicks, director of Placer County Environmental Health, said in an email to the Sun on Tuesday. “We have agreed on a plan to let Squaw Valley open the upper mountain in a way that will protect public health and allow skiers to access and enjoy the facilities.”

That deal reportedly includes serving only pre-packaged food and water, and posting notices that inform the guests.

Squaw Valley Public Relations Director Liesl Kenney did not return the Sun’s phone call seeking comment for this story, instead issuing the following email statement:

“Over the summer, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows conducted an extensive water system upgrade to the wells servicing the High Camp and Gold Coast facilities at Squaw Valley. In order to meet the very latest design standards, existing well-head apparatus was relocated from underground vaults to above-ground secure well-houses and supply pipelines were replaced in order to diminish risk of surface water intrusion. After the system was certified, tested and returned to service, the region received 9.5 inches of precipitation over a 72 hour period. With the inundation of excess precipitation, water professionals and engineers have required supplemental water sample testing.”

The statement went on to quote Squaw Valley Public Service District General Manager Mike Geary as saying, “Given that Squaw Valley Resort recently completed construction of their updated water supply and distribution systems and subsequently received significantly above average rainfall, these results are not surprising.”

Neither Kenney nor Geary immediately responded to phone call requests seeking additional information and comment on this story.

Dean Marsh of Sauers Engineering, the company that designed the system upgrade, told the Sun on Tuesday he believes the issue is not related to the design of the system. He declined to give further details.

According to Placer County, it’s currently unknown how long the testing process will continue before the water is considered safe to drink again.

“They’re taking water samples every day and having them tested,” Placer County Public Relations Director Robert Miller said in an email to the Sun. “When the tests indicate the water is safe for human consumption, the ban will be lifted.”

“But we couldn’t speculate how long that might take,” he said. “They’ll keep testing until the water is safe.”

UPDATE (Nov. 29, 6:50 p.m. Tuesday):

Coliform and E. coli bacteria were detected in the drinking water at Squaw Valley’s upper mountain, Nicks said in an interview later Tuesday with the Sierra Sun.

“Nov. 8 is when (Placer County) environmental health was aware of the issue for the upper valley system,” he said.

Nicks said that although the water was initially not potable for anything, it has been treated consistently since Nov. 8 and is showing improvement.

Three out of the four wells that serve upper mountain are showing low levels of coliform presently and no E. coli, Nicks said.

However, before those systems can be brought back online, they must show “no detect” for all bacteria.

Nicks said that coliform refers to a wide variety of bacteria, not all of which are necessarily harmful.

But one kind of coliform, E. coli, is known to be harmful. So, when a water system shows low levels of coliform and no E. coli, it can be used for restrooms but not for consumption — and that’s exactly what’s going on right now on upper mountain.

With continued treatment, which Nicks said includes flushing the system with chlorine and rinsing it, as well as injecting sodium hydrochloride for safety, three of the four wells should be able to come back online soon.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed, hopefully it’s pretty soon. … The fourth well, they don’t absolutely need it, so if it’s kind of stubborn, they can just keep it offline until it gets resolved,” Nicks said.

Nicks said the restaurant facilities at High Camp and Gold Coast aren’t open, and only prepackaged food and water can be sold right now, as no food preparation is allowed until the problem is solved.

He added that the snow outside, whether natural or manmade, is not exactly ideal habitat for coliform or E. coli.

“Freezing tends to kill bacteria, so no problem there,” he said. “These bacteria live inside of mammals so they like it warm.”

Geary, who also spoke with the Sun later Tuesday, said that the wells in question are not operated by the Squaw Valley Public Service District, but are part of the Elevation 8200′ Water Company.

The company’s Executive Vice President, Mike Livak, had not returned The Sun’s calls seeking comment by Tuesday evening.

Learn More