Earlier this winter, the North Fork of the Snake River ran low. So low there wasn't enough water to supply nearby Arapahoe Basin's snowmaking operations and keep the stream flow whole as required by Colorado water law.
Following a record low snowfall season last year, Summit County is currently in the midst of a severe drought. Despite a summer marked by stringent fire bans and water restrictions in 2012, A-Basin is the only local resort where dry conditions have impacted snowmaking this winter.
A complex system of water rights, reservoir storage and agreements kept Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain and Keystone Resort snow guns well supplied this winter.
"Our water agreements give Copper a buffer every year," resort spokeswoman Austyn Williams stated in an email to the Summit Daily. "During this season's snowmaking, Copper did not experience any drought-like effects."
Water rights allow the ski areas to pull a certain amount of water from local streams, so long as those streams don't drop below a specified level. But Copper and Breckenridge both enjoy the safeguard of nearby water storage - Clinton Reservoir for Copper Mountain and Goose Pasture Tarn for Breckenridge. Both resorts can pull some water from storage to supplement streamflows when necessary.
Keystone's backup plan is an agreement with Denver Water, the utility company that owns Dillon Reservoir. The resort is able to pump some water from Roberts Tunnel, which directs water from the reservoir toward its route down to Denver, according to Troy Wineland, state division of water resources water commissioner for the Blue River Basin.
"In the absence of their agreement with Denver Water, (Keystone) would have experienced some hardship this season," Wineland said.
But while the agreements and reservoirs do provide augmentation water in dry years, they do not supply unlimited resources.
"Because the reservoirs have water does not mean the ski areas can continue to make snow," Wineland said. "They are limited by their legal decrees and water contracts to a specific volume of water. Once they run through that, they must cease their diversions."
Breck and Copper have wrapped up snowmaking for the year. Keystone's operations are nearly complete. The resort is now blowing only small amounts of snow at night.
A-Basin representatives could not be reached for this story.
In Breckenridge, the Blue River continues to run low, despite the end of snowmaking operations. But officials say current flows are normal for this time of year, considering the dry conditions.
Because of the drought, in January, February and March, the town of Breckenridge is diverting a portion of the Blue River streamflows to be stored for municipal use and future snowmaking efforts, further reducing the water levels, according to a report from the town.
Damage to the streambed from historic dredge mining caused the river to run completely dry in some places this year, the report states.