Drought: Several ski areas gear up for potential impact
SUMMIT COUNTY – The implications of this summer’s drought may go far beyond low lake levels to the very lifeblood of Summit County’s economy – skiing.
“While everybody thinks the ski industry is bulletproof, there won’t be any snowmaking if there isn’t any water,” County Commissioner Tom Long said Monday during a commissioners’ worksession. “We in a resort community will suffer just like agricultural communities in a drought.”
The U.S. Forest Service said it’s a consideration, but not yet a looming threat.
“There is the potential for it to affect snowmaking,” said district ranger Jamie Connell. “Many of our ski areas, through their water rights and other restrictions, are required to maintain minimum flows in the stream. If the stream were already at a minimum flow, that would affect their ability to withdraw water from it.
“We’re not at all predicting that at this time. We aren’t now foreseeing that as a problem.”
But that consideration isn’t lost on some of the county’s ski area employees, who already are taking steps to protect their snowmaking ability.
“Our best chance is for a good snow year,” said Bill Miller, Keystone’s director of mountain operations. “As a ski area, snow is everything, and snowmaking definitely helps us get open early. We’re trying to be proactive in anticipation of low water flows and continued drought.”
Keystone’s snowmaking water comes from the Snake River.
Anticipating low flows there, the resort has hired a consulting engineer to help the resort find any areas in which it can become more efficient in snowmaking.
“We want to make sure what snow we do make is good snow,” he said. “Snow can be too wet, so some of the water leeches out of it and you’re using more water than you need to. We’re spending capital on an improved (snowmaking) gun that is more efficient. We’re repairing pipes so we don’t have any leaks. We’ve also purchased a new computer software system that will actually track the amount of snow we’re making so we don’t make more than we need to.”
While this year’s drought may be more severe than in the past, Miller said Keystone has dealt with such issues in the past.
Breckenridge ski area has its own “insurance policy” in a drought year, said the ski area’s director of mountain operations Rick Sramek. Years ago, it purchased water rights in the Goose Pasture Tarn, a pond outside of the town in Blue River. When the ski area needs more water, it can call upon those rights. Water from the tarn is then released into the Blue River.
Sramek is fairly confident the ski area won’t deplete the water available to it in the tarn.
“This year might be different,” he said.
But, he said, in 25 years of snowmaking, the ski area hasn’t had to face that issue.
“Even though it’s vastly more expensive, that’s why you spend all that money for water and water rights,” Sramek said.
Copper Mountain’s Chief Operating Officer Dave Barry said it’s too soon to talk about a shortage of water for snowmaking.
“I think we really have to see what happens with all the situations regarding water around the state,” he said. “For us, water is a serious issue. We’ll pay attention to it. As things evolve, we’ll be in a better position to comment on that. I think it would be inappropriate to make any comment on a situation that hasn’t been fully analyzed or thought through.”
This fall will be the first time Arapahoe Basin Ski Area will have a snowmaking system. Officials there could not be reached Tuesday for comment on this story.
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