A Blueprint For Building A Private Ski Site


March 5, 2019

A Tale of Two Ski Lakes

Imagine this scene: You’re on a perfectly glassy lake, ready to take what is sure to be your personal best slalom ride. You stretch, hop on the swim step, push your feet into your bindings, slither into the unbelievably smooth water, and give the signal that everything is all clear. Wait. Here comes Joe I/O cruising exactly perpendicular to the slalom course between you and the end gates. He waves as he goes by because he knows he has been an outstanding boater by refraining from actually going through the course. Nice rollers.Sound familiar? Public lakes, private lakes. What’s the difference? If there is more than one boat operating at a time on any lake, there is the potential for bitterness. Why not direct that anger and negative energy into something more positive? Like building a private ski lake!

If you’re ready to take the plunge into this twisted form of land development, you need to know this is not something you will be able to do in a month or even a year. It will take money, time, dedication and, above all, an understanding boss. It will cost more than twice as much money and take more than twice the time you can possibly estimate. You will make enemies. People will think you’re going to ruin their lives and kill their children. Your phone bills will skyrocket and your money will evaporate. Your friends will give you advice or convince you to give up, and the government will tell you what to do. You will get very muddy.


I am an electrical engineer and my partner,Randy Hocking, is a CPA. So why should you listen to us? In our quest for the ultimate ski site, we acquired some wisdom we would like to share. We spent countless hours researching and preparing plans, permits, and contracts, and made presentations to town councils and county commissioners. We learned to use computers in ways Hewlett and Packard never intended and put up barbed wire fences wearing suits and ties. Does one go to school to learn how to seek out and create perfect water ski lakes? Not usually. By telling you some of the highlights of our project, from finding the site and getting the permits to its design and construction, you will surely see how these different aspects could apply to your own site-should you be obsessed and/or possessed enough to build one.

Our project, called ”Laku Landing”(pronounced Lock-oo) is finished with the permitting and design phase, and is now under construction. The property is located 40 minutes north of Denver in Windsor, Colorado, and will consist of two tournament ski lakes, six homesites, and a Christmas tree farm. Laku, we think, is from the Latin word lacu, meaning lake. To this day we are not completely sure how we came up with ”Laku Landing” in one of your late-night planning sessions, but we are sure there were many late-night planning sessions.

Finding A Perfect Site And Striking A Deal
What is perfect? In building your ski lake, the obvious first step is finding the site. There are many factors that will indicate if you have found it or if you should keep looking. How much can you spend? What will the water source be? Are the size and shape adequate for the lakes and other development? Where is it located? How will you dig it? All these things are interrelated. The farther you are from an urban center, the less expensive the land may be, but remember that a piece of land 20 minutes from downtown LosAngeles might cost $1 million an acre, while property 20 minutes from Denver may cost $1,000 an acre.


One of the first things we did when studying a potential site was to buy aerial photos from the county courthouse. These photos were then digitized into a computer and different lake designs were super imposed on them. From this we could tell the size and shape of the lake(s) we could build. If you don’t have a computer with adequate software, lakes can be cut out to scale on paper and placed on the aerial photos.

Dollars vs. Partners
How much land can you afford? What is the down payment? How will it be financed? How many partners do you want? The more partners you have, the more property you will probably be able to afford. In addition, the amount of work ahead is staggering, so you will probably want some help. On the other hand, imagine getting anything done with eight partners who all think they re in charge-but don’t really do any work.

Remember, you probably want to ski together once the site is finished. Just Add Water; Depending on the location, your water can come from the ground water table through see page or a well, an irrigation ditch, a river, rain water drainage, or any other legal water source available. It is not likely you will use a garden hose hooked to city water because you will be needing millions of gallons, not only to fill the lake, but also to replace any loss caused by evaporation.


Our Property is adjacent to the Cache la Poudre River, right next to the Rocky Mountains of Northern Colorado. This means we can expect a good year-round waterflow and hence a high water table; although in Colorado, there is a law that states we must pay for the evaporation caused by exposing ground water to the atmosphere. You need to be aware of similar laws in your area.

How Big Should It Be?
Laku Landing is 133 acres, but not all of that is needed for the ski lakes. In determining the required property size keep in mind you will need about 15 water-surface acres for a comfortable three-event lake that’s 2,200 by 300 feet. Because nobody wants the shores of their lake to be coincident with their property line, you should have a minimum of 75 feet of solid ground surrounding the lake. This will allow for spectators, RV parking, and camping. Therefore, you can figure the minimum size chunk of ground you will need is no less than about 23 acres.

Be aware that 23 acres is useless if it is not the right shape. Limit your search to property that’s nearly a half-mile long, so it can accommodate a lake at least 2,150 feet in length. It’s possible to have a shorter lake, but then the set-ups will be tight, but then the set-ups will be tight, rollers will not dissipate before the next pass, and you’ll be sorry.


Let’s Make a Deal
Up until this point, you have been trying to make a decision as to whether or not a certain site is right for your project. If everything appears to be suitable, it’s time you may want to consider hiring an attorney.

The cost of legal advice sometimes clouds a person’s decision to retain it. Usually, a good lawyer can recognize a potential problem in your deal and easily save you the amount of his or her fees should the problem go unnoticed.

Our recommendation is to get an attorney involved early in the project so he or she can be familiar with the deal, but do all the leg work yourself and let the lawyer look over the final product before anything is signed. That way, when you have a question, the attorney will not need to spend a great deal of time becoming familiar with your entire project and will be able to study only the question at hand. If the attorney does everything from drafting the contract to presenting the seller with the offer, you will rack up substantial legal fees. In contrast, if you get a few hours of legal advice at different times during contract negotiations, the cost will be tolerable and potential problems may be avoided.

Real estate offers are usually initiated by the buyer and use a standardized, fill-in-the-blank contract you can buy from most stationery stores. The terms of the offer will spell out the price, financing, down payment, earnest money, closing date, and other details pertaining to what you will actually be purchasing. Although the terms are important, it s crucial you build enough contingencies into the contract. This will enable you to get out the deal if something goes wrong, even if you happen to find a better piece of land. The contingencies you’ll need will depend mostly on the land you’re purchasing, but some example contingencies that should render your contract null and void are:

  • Procurement of the necessary permits needed to implement your project
  • Indication of sufficient water to maintain a certain lake depth
  • Satisfactory completion of a soil/geological survey
  • Usable access to the property

The first contingency listed above will work for most anything if you simply don’t apply for the permits by the closing date. A competent real estate attorney will help you with any other contingencies you will need, so make sure you retain one.

Getting The Permits And Dealing With Your Enemies
We have heard stories of two sites not getting the required permits where the owners just went ahead with their project. Once discovered, the lakes had to be drained and all activities shut down while the owners went through the correct process. If the hadn’t been able to get their permits, they would have been stuck with the land anyway. Never buy any land unless you already have the permits to implement your project. If you have the land under contract with a contingency for getting all necessary permits, you are covered.

What Permits Will You Need?
Do your research by going to the planning department of the county of city that has jurisdiction over the property in question. Be prepared to jump through hoops, but most of all get to be friends with the planner, because he or she can make your like miserable or wonderful.

The permits needed will vary from region to region, but the overall theme of most permits is to make sure you(a) don’t ruin your neighbors’ lives; (b) have thought out and documented every aspect of your project; and (c) let the public have a chance to complain. Here are the permits we needed to obtain:

  • Special Use Permit. This is needed because our use goes beyond the uses allowed by right (i.e., ski tournaments).
  • Construction Dewatering Permit. This allows us to pump water out of the lake area so we can drive excavation machinery in and drive it out again.
  • Evaporative Augmentation Plan. In Colorado, the WaterCourt (a court that makes rulings on water rights) determines how much evaporation we are causing by exposing underground water to the atmosphere. We must pay for this.
  • Dust Control Permit. The health department uses this permit to ensure reasonable dust levels are maintained during construction.
  • Mined Lake Reclamation Permit. A sufficient bond must be posted to guarantee that if we don’t complete the project, the land will be returned to its initial condition.
  • Building Permits. Every structure to be built onsite, including our entrance sign, needs a building permit.
  • Food Hazard Permit. We had a study performed showing we would not adversely affect the food plain.
  • A waiver stating we would not sue the Department of Wildlife for any damage caused by reindeer to our Christmas tree farm. We think this was a joke.

Application For Permits
Of all the described permits, the Special Use Permit was the most important. It was the cornerstone of the whole permitting process from which all other permits were based. It required a detailed textual and graphic description of the project, two planning commission public hearings, and a final public hearing before the county commissioners.

All of the other permits used date generated from the special Use Permit. The key to success for any ”use permit” such as this is to prepare and present your plan with lots of graphics and easy- to-understand concepts. For example, a key theme to ours was the lack of suitable ski sites in the area for national-level competitive training. Another point we tried to stress is the contrast between competitive skiing and recreational boating and how these two legitimate activities cannot exist on common bodies of water.

There are two extremes when preparing permits: Do everything yourself or pay somebody to do it for you. The textual description of your project is something you should do yourself, while the graphic descriptions can be done by an engineering consulting or graphics arts firm, but the cost can be high. We did it ourselves, but we had access to good computers and powerful software. Hand- drawn sketches will not do the job unless they are done carefully and to scale. The more professional your presentation looks, the better chance you have of convincing people you know what you’re doing.

After submitting your complete proposal, our planner distributed the proposal to all the governmental agencies she thought appropriate: the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, Department of Wildlife, Soil Conservation Service, Fire Protection District, Health Department, and many more. Every agency that could possibly object to any part of the project, ”Gravel Mine,”and the dates of our public hearings were sent to the adjacent property owners.

They’re Building A Toxic Waste Dump
We might as well have. Word spread like wildfire of developers who were going to rape the land, flood the countryside, and quadruple the mosquito population. A few negative letters letters to the editor in Windsor newspaper defined what the enemy hated about our project. The issues expressed included noise, gravel truck traffic, and the ”what is this going to do for me” syndrome. As it turned out, there were five people who were strongly opposed tour project. Once they distributed leaflets, almost 100 people showed up at our first public hearing with the word ”lynch” written on their faces.

This hearing lasted for two hours with concerns and complaints getting repeated again and again. Our patience wore thin, and it was difficult to answer people’s accusations with a smile and a ”yes, sir no, ma’am.” But we kept our composure.

When the barrage of grunts and moans finally subsided, it was the planning commissioners’ turn to state their concerns. We were prepared for the worst, but we never could have anticipated what followed. Instead of the commissioners accusing us of pillage, they attacked the audience: How can you treat these gentlemen this way after all the time and professionalism they put into this presentation? If any other developers were treated the way you have treated these men tonight, there wouldn’t be any development anywhere. How can you ask what this project will do for you? When you build a barbecue pit in your back yard, do you invite me? We were loving it. This was the beginning of the end for our rivals. And it was all because we were prepared and never argued with the enemy. It was important to make them appear they had lost control of themselves, while we had a level headed answer for everything, even if it was ”I don’t know.”

By a complete coincidence, another item on that evening’s agenda was the announcement of the construction of a multimillion-dollar sewage treatment facility on the Jacoby Farm. The Jacoby Farm was a previous candidate for Laku Landing before that deal fell through. Perhaps it made people wonder if the qualities desirable for a ski lake might also be desirable for a sewage treatment plant. This could have been an interesting defense to any opposition, although we didn’t use it.

At the next two hearings, fewer and fewer people presented opposing arguments. We had heard their negative remarks repeated so many times, we were too well prepared for them to do any damage. If you let the opposition know about your project early, you can find out what they’re upset about and project early, you can find out what they’re upset about and proceed to appease them, or classify them as non-threatening.

A perfect example of this was the amount of noise (in our hearings we always used the word ”sound”) the enemy expected from a tournament ski site. I researched the laws on the topic of legal sound levels and performed and published an extensive analysis of the sound levels generated by lake construction and tournament towboats. This made the opposition sound stupid when they made their complaints because we had proven we would easily be within legal noise limits.

At the final hearing, we received unanimous approval of our project. The time and effort we put into our documentation and presentation made the difference between approval and denial. Remember, it pays to do your homework.

A Tale of Two Ski Lakes

Specialty Ski Lake Design, Dimensions, And Construction
When we left off with the first part of this article last issue, we had received all the permits necessary for the construction and use of two world-class tournament lakes situated just outside of Denver, Colorado, a project we named Laku Landing. We were on top of the world, but if there was ever an analogy in were skiing comparable to the mountain climber’s ”false summit,” we were there. The only thing standing between us and the ultimate ski site was about 500,000 cubic yards of dirt, clay, sand, and gravel. We were at the costliest, most difficult, and by far the most crucial stage in our project. A poorly designed lake is pretty tough to change once it’s finished-if it ever gets finished.

If you pay someone to do it for you, a tournament-quality ski lake can be dug in about 30 to 45 days.Granted, you could be skiing in less than two months, but the price of a private contractor can be astronomical.

Cost is also the reason many man-made ski sites are so shallow, running anywhere from ankle-to waist-deep.For example, in the deserts of California, most of the lakes are about four feet deep in the middle, with the bottoms tapering up gently all the way toward the shore. This saves on excavation costs, and you’ll use less electricity pumping water into the lakes than you would if they were deeper.

A reasonable charge to move one cubic yard of material is about $1, although this figure varies depending on many factors especially the distance it must be moved and the current price of fuel. For a comfortably sized lake that is 15 acres wide(43,560 square feet to an acre) and four feet deep (minimum), you have 2,613,600 cubic feet (or 96,800 cubic yards) of material to dig. Therefore, the cost would be about $96,800 to have that 15 acre lake dug for you. Ouch.

In the case of Lake Landing, we rely on the groundwater table for our water supply, and it fluctuates between zero and five feet below ground level. Clearly, a lake four deep was unacceptable in our situation, so we decided to dig a minimum of 10 feet down. Suddenly the cost is up to almost $250,000 per lake-a whopping half a million dollars for the two lakes. There are people out there who can afford this, but why spend it if there are alternatives?

For example, you can dig the lake yourself.You can rent heavy equipment to get the job done, and if you plan to have a ski club at your new site, the members can be a good source of labor. The equipment you need depends on the type of soil to be removed, but a loader, excavator, and dump truck can work together as a good team. The excavator breaks up the ground and the loader puts it in the dump truck to be carried away. Digging a 96,800-cubic-yard lake with a five-cubic-yard loader takes 19,360 scoops. Obviously, digging a lake in 30 days would require many teams. If the ground is relatively dry, earth movers or scrapers are more efficient, but they get stuck easily.

If you decide to do it yourself-beware.Consider what happened the last time you thought you could do something cheaper than the experts. If it actually turned out to be cheaper, it probably looked it, too.

Another option is to find contractor who wants the material enough to dig the lake for free or maybe even pay you.The key is to find the correct market. Our property is rich with gravel, and there are many companies that use considerable amounts of gravel for contracted jobs. Unfortunately, the distance from the site to the job where the material is needed will significantly affect the demand for your free material. This is because the cost of trucking is usually greater than the cost of the material itself.

Specialty Lake Design
The design of a tournament ski lake is dictated by the type of skiing for which it will be used. If it is used for all events, compromises must be made because the needs of some events conflict with the needs of others.

So what constitutes the perfect four-event lake (slalom, tricks, jumping, and barefooting)? The dimensions chart shows minimum, nominal, and luxury dimensions needed for each event. A minimum dimension means minimum acceptable safety and convenience levels can be met. Nominal is a more comfortable dimension that requires fewer special driving techniques to provide good water to the skier. A luxury dimension is not completely necessary, but if you can get way with it, you will be happy every pass down the lake. Our table merely sets guidelines-some skiers might have different reasons for using different dimensions. Any comments with regard to lake dimensions are welcomed so information can be passed on to other readers.

The Slalom Lake
Barefoot Lake in Fort Collins, Colorado, is what can be described as a minimum-length ski lake for an 850-foot, six-buoy slalom course. It has 1,600 usable feet, which leaves only 375 feet at either end for the turnaround and setup. This situation usually forces the skier to drop at each end and wait about 15seconds for the rollers to clear from the previous pass. A 2,150-foot lake will have 650-foot setups at either end. This is a good amount, although the driver must swing little to the right as the skier leaves the course so there are no rollers on the setup for the next pass.

These problems vanish when the lake 2,400 feet long. If it is any longer, a big disadvantage is the amount of gas and time that is wasted traveling the extra distance each time the boat makes another pass.

When considering the width needed for a slalom lake, there are a couple of conflicting elements: wind protection and safety. The prime motivation for building narrow ski lakes is to prevent waves from forming in strong winds. The shorter the reach, or the surface the wind is blowing across, the better. A175-foot-wide lake will have 50 feet of water between the buoy and the shoreline. Anything less than this and the skier runs the risk of tumbling onto shore after going out the front. At a 225-foot width, there are 75 feet of margin, which is more than adequate.Any wider than this, and the reach is greater for waves to form from the wind.

The Jump Lake
Of all the dimensions needed for a jump lake, perhaps the most critical is to have about 125 feet of water between the jump and the adjacent shoreline. Assuming the boat travels a maximum of 75 feet from the far edge of the jump, and the skier travels a maximum of 75 feet away from the boat before the final cut to jump, the minimum width of the lake at the jump is nearly 275 feet. A typical jump lake will be abut 300 feet wide at the jump to allow for some spaced between the skier and the shoreline during the pre-jump cuts. Because of the desire to have the narrowest lake possible for wind concerns and lower excavation costs, it’s common for lakes to flair out near the location of the jump.

There are a few options when figuring the length of a jump lake. The jump course itself is about 920 feet long, and after taking into account the distance used for the setup before and the ride-out after the course, 2,00 feet is the absolute minimum needed. Those who jump shorter distances will be able to get away with a shorter lake, but for a world-record pop, the jumper will use every inch available.

The basic problem with a short jump lake is that the jump will be located between the four and five ball of the slalom course, so the lake will need to be wider there. This can cause rough-water problems for the slalomers. If the lake is longer than 2,150 feet, the jump can be adjacent to or even beyond the entrance gates, leaving the slalom-course portion of the lake as narrow as possible.

Figure 1 shows three such configurations graphically. In all of these scenarios, the slalom and jump courses overlap, so three to five buoys may need to be removed from the slalom course when jumping. Depending on the buoy anchor system, it can be relatively simple to either submerge or remove the conflicting buoys.

The Trick Lake
A trick lake has the fewest constraints, since the boat speeds are so much slower than in the other events. For example, if a skier is tricking at a speed of 18 mph, the distance traversed during a 20-second pass is 528 feet. Even though room is needed at each end for the turnaround and warm-up before the start of the trick course, a 1,200-foot-long lake is quite adequate for any level tricker. Most of the time when working on a new trick, many attempts will be made before you get it. (How many times does it take to learn a hand-to-hand wake O without sliding it?) This scenario illustrates when it’s nice to have a longer lake.

The width basically doesn’t matter as long as it is greater than 100 feet. Most trickers use ropes shorter than 50 feet, and a tricker hardly ever pulls wider than 15 feet from the wake. At 100 feet wide, the daredevil stunt tricker who gets as wide of the boat as possible, explodes toward the wake, launches into the air, performs a tucked front flip, and lands on his head 20 feet beyond the wake will still have a little room to spare.These dimensions are also appropriate fro kneeboarders.

The Barefoot Lake
My limited barefooting ability further accentuates the footer’s need for glassy water. The smoother the water, the less the likelihood of catching a toe. Using the reasoning given earlier, this means the lake should be as narrow as possible. Also, if the lake is oriented so that the prevailing winds are blowing across the lake instead of down it, the water will be smoother.

The barefooters who ski at Barefoot Lake do their thing over only 1,600 feet of water. This seems a little ridiculous, but they are happy with the situation. Assuming a lake will be used for barefooting as well as slalom, 2,150 feet is a reasonable dimension to consider. A 2,600-foot lake, however, will help give the footer more time-especially as the boat speed approaches 40mph.

A Bird’s Eye View
Figure 2 shows the designs of the lakes at Laku Landing, excluding the turn islands. Although the reasons behind the dimensions we chose are described above, be aware there are many right answers to the question, ”What are the perfect lake dimensions?” and an infinite number of wrong answers. Our lakes appear to be wider than the dimensions given above because we have accounted for fluctuation in water level. The sloped shorelines will cause the lakes to narrow as the water level drops.

Depth, Shorelines, and Turn Islands
The deeper a lake is, the cleaner it will be, because the sun will not be able to penetrate to the bottom, and plant life will not grow as rapidly. This is why shallow lakes can have a disgusting seaweed and/or algae problem. There are some shallow lakes with very rocky bottoms that do not exhibit this condition because vegetation cannot grow through the rocks very easily.

If the shorelines of the lake are too steep, the boat wakes will reflect off of them, creating backwash. This isa terrible problem because the boat must stop every few passes and let the water settle out. If the shorelines are gradually sloped, the boat wakes will dissipate as they hit them, and no reflections will occur. If the slope is too gentle, the water will be very shallow extending away from the lake edge, and it may not be safe for skiing. Also, there will be a greater vegetation problem near the lake edge since sunlight can penetrate to the bottom.

Figure 3 illustrates our shoreline design. The slope of the bottom at the point where it intersects water surface is about 10:1. This means for every 10 feet you travel away from the lake edge, the water gets one foot deeper. After a certain distance we increase to a steeper slope of 3:1. Any sharp edge caused by a slope change will be smoothed out in time erosion.

The purpose of a turn island is to create a convergence point for the boat wake as the boat makes a turn at the end of a lake. Otherwise, a nice big roller can be sent back down the course. Many tournament lakes get by just fine without turn islands, but there is less room for error in the driver’s technique.

The big question in the design of turn islands is what you build them with. If you dig your lake and just leave the islands at each end, be aware of the potential for them to erode away. Some lakes have the channel between the islands and the lake edge dredged out every few yards, with the material piled right back on top of the islands. The islands can also be made of logs, railroad ties, old tires, or anything that is cheap and in abundance, provided it is a workable design. In any case, the islands must be a minimum of 40 feet in diameter and their shorelines must meet the requirements described above to eliminate backwash.

Now What?
If you are serious about building a ski lake, remember that all sites are different, and what may work perfectly well for one may not work for another. In these two articles, we have looked at finding the site, striking a deal with the appropriate terms, designing the lakes, and building them. The breadth and depth of a project like this could easily fill a book, and these articles only attempt to cover the basics.

Perhaps the most important information to be learned here is that there are many man-made lakes in existence, and nobody should attempt a feat of these proportions without studying what other people have done. Maybe someday people in everyday life will use the phrase, ”Let’s try not to reinvent the ski lake.”


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