With only slight snowfall in the near-term forecast and with the long-range snow forecast ambiguous at best, ski areas still aren't worried; they say their snowmaking is good to go.
On the flip side, long-time Summit County water commissioner Scott Hummer, who now works with the Colorado Water Trust, said there's only so much water, and with additional snowmaking pressures like building terrain parks, managing water consumption is a balancing act. That balancing act only gets more tenuous in dry seasons.
The typical snowmaking season is mid- to late-September through Christmas or New Year's Day. Hummer remembers the season that prompted its creation - Breckenridge closed in January and February 1978 due to lack of snow. The next year, preliminary technology was in place at large resorts in Colorado. Over the years, it has evolved from guaranteeing a trail base throughout the season to building halfpipes and large jumps for terrain parks. It has also evolved in efficiency.
Hummer said making snow for various attractions is all fine and good, until the early-season dry spell lasts. And until one considers that the snow comes from water which, in the mountain West, is highly limited.
At the same time he's seen the added demands, he's also see resorts pay more attention to streamflow issues. As more importance was placed on a ski area's environmental image, ski areas have responded.
"The ski areas have stepped up to the plate and done as much if not more than they are required to do to ensure instream flows are met," Hummer said. Instream flows are important for aquatic life, which needs a certain amount of water to survive.
Nonetheless, the snow needed to start falling "yesterday" to wean the ski resorts off snowmaking, he said earlier this week.
"We've got a lot of winter to go and we're already behind the eight ball as far as accumulating snowpack statewide," Hummer said.
Ski area personnel keep a careful eye on the gauges that measure minimum stream flows, amounts drawn from water sources, and the limits of their overall water rights from Clinton Reservoir - a jointly owned water storage facility near Climax. Keystone Resort, for example, assigns a snowmaking team member to watch the streamflow graph - even at 2 a.m. When flows start dipping toward the 6 cubic feet per second stream flow minimum in the Snake River, they shut off the system and wait for the graph line to creep back up.
"If there's a minimum streamflow on a stream, they're required to meet that, whether it's a dry year or a wet year, or whatever," said Jon Ewert, fisheries biologist with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. The minimum streamflows were put in place through ecological analysis and political process to account for environmental damage caused by diversions.
In wet years, minimum stream flow questions rarely arise, Ewert said. In dry spells, they come up.
Though there are limits, Keystone Resort spokeswoman Laura Parquette said the resort has enough water to keep making snow throughout the season.
"Even if it doesn't snow for the rest of the season, we'd be able to continue to make snow," she said. "We are benefiting from these sustained cold temperatures, which provide great snowmaking conditions and keep what we've made in good shape."
She added that terrain park features do create an added demand, but currently aren't stressing the system. Typically, the features are built early, and snowmaking during the season is used to open new slopes and refresh others.
At Copper Mountain, marketing director Pete Woods touted technological advancements that help increase the quality and quantity of snow on the mountainsides. Even with a 40 percent increase in snowmaking, a fully-automated system at the high speed training center, and demands of creating terrain park features - all of which are meant to create a better guest experience - Copper isn't close to hitting its water rights limits, he said.
Woods added that getting snow on the slopes is beneficial in both the short and long term. Without machine-made snow and the ability to keep slopes open during what have become high-demand times, the economic impact could reverberate throughout the county.
"We are so lucky as a county that the resort have invested so heavily in snowmaking," he said. "Not every year do we need it. We don't rely on it as heavily in some years as others. But when we all need it, we're pretty lucky to have what we have."
When there's no snow, problems in the world of limited water are compounded, Hummer said. Streams get colder and slower, closer to freezing through, without snow to insulate the ice layer and keep the water moving.
To Hummer's knowledge, this is the first year Copper Mountain is receiving supplementary releases from the Clinton Reservoir to keep up with snowmaking needs due to ice dams clogging the stream's flow.
An insulated stream also helps fish endure winter, as they take refuge in deeper pools that take longer to freeze, Ewert said.
And Woods added that making snow - freezing water on the mountainside - means amplified runoff during the thaw.
At the same time, Ewert said a lean snow year could be beneficial for the streams, come spring. In high runoff years such as last spring, fish growth is stunted because the water is cold and they expend energy to stay warm and stay in one place.
"A river benefits in other ways from a big runoff ... but it also, in the short term, can be hard on the trout population," Ewert said, adding that his ideal would be to have low runoff this year and next before returning to the snowpack levels of the last two years.