Snowmaking: Too much of a good thing? |

Snowmaking: Too much of a good thing?

Bob Berwyn

I’ve lived through my share of drought winters in the past 50 seasons, so I’ve come to appreciate the enterprise and technology of modern snowmaking. As local resorts fired up their snow guns the last few weeks, my heart beat a little faster. Even though that first storm rolled through on the last day of summer, I could sense the hand of winter, about to drape its icy, vaporous fingers across the Rockies.

Like most people living in mountain resort towns, my livelihood has, to varying degrees, depended on the ability of the ski areas to open up at Thanksgiving and Christmas, whether Mother Nature is cooperating or not. As a ski instructor in California, and New Mexico, I knew there would be no paycheck unless the lifts opened. But I still can’t shake the slightly uneasy feeling that, once again, we’ve gone too far in our quest to manipulate the natural environment.

At first, snowmaking was seen as an insurance policy against total disaster, helping resorts get a few runs open early in the season in lieu of the real stuff. As skiing evolved into a form of industrial mass tourism, the rationale changed a bit. Mountain managers saw an opportunity to lay down a solid base in areas where the snow wears out quickly. As the technology improved, it became possible to cover huge chunks of terrain with artificial snow, ensuring decent skiing even in the complete absence of natural snow. Most recently, resorts have been able to create man-made terrain parks that are now considered an indispensable part of a ski area’s business.

Along the way, snowmaking operations gulped ever-greater quantities of water from trickling mountain streams, in some cases right down to the last drop. To use local examples, Keystone at times uses up to half the flow in the Snake River at peak snowmaking times, and when the guns are going full-bore at Breckenridge, the Blue River is reduced to series of meager puddles downstream.

To be sure, Colorado has enacted rules to protect streams. Snowmaking diversions are subject to minimum flows set to protect aquatic ecosystems. In theory, that sounds pretty good. In reality, water officials have said flow-monitoring gauges sometimes freeze, making it hard to measure compliance at the most critical times. There’s also a more fundamental question of whether the minimum flows are adequate to protect the environment “to a reasonable degree.”

All this is important because the depletions come when streams are already flowing at their lowest levels and trout, for one, are subject to tremendous environmental stress. Like other wildlife, fish survive at the razor’s edge of existence during the cold winter months in the Colorado high country. If water levels get too low, streams can freeze from the bottom up, literally freezing fish to death.

The bottom line is that we don’t really know the overall environmental impact of snowmaking on the greater Blue River watershed, simply because it’s never been measured at that scale. Although all four local resorts draw significant amounts of water from the basin’s key tributaries at the same time, agencies authorizing those operations (primarily the U.S. Forest Service) have never taken a big-picture look.

Clearly, snowmaking is critical to our economy. It’s also obvious that the health of local streams is equally important for the long-term environmental sustainability of the region. It’s not likely that snowmaking is going to decrease any time soon. In fact, if global warming – as predicted – makes natural snow less reliable, the demand for the resource will increase.

Now is the time to get some good baseline data on how simultaneous snowmaking diversions at four major ski areas affect the health of the Blue River, and to develop a long-term plan that balances economic needs with the environmental health of our rivers.

It may require development of expensive new infrastructure, including on-mountain reservoirs to store water when it’s abundant instead of taking it during low-flow times. And depending on the impacts of climate change, there may even come a time when resorts have to forgo or delay building massive whales of snow for terrain features.

I think most skiers and snowboarders care deeply about the environment, and would accept some limitations on snowmaking in order to find that balance, especially if the resorts and Forest Service take the lead in explaining the issues in that context, with good scientific information on the table.

Bob Berwyn has been reporting from Summit County since 1996 and is jonesin’ for opening day.

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