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As More Resorts Make Snow, Climate Change Spells Trouble

Dec 21, 2014

The Aspen Skiing Company started making snow to supplement natural snow in the 1970s, after a devastating drought.
Credit Marci Krivonen

It’s that time of year when ski resorts crank up snowmaking machines to bolster Mother Nature’s delivery. Some resorts depend on man-made snow more than others and it’s possible  the practice may be used more in the future. For Connecting the Drops, Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Snow on Aspen Mountain reflects the early afternoon sun, as skiers zig-zag their way down steep terrain. I’m not on skis today, instead I’m heading to a section closed to skiers. Snowmaking Manager Harry Lynk is taking me there on a snowmobile.

Lynk: “Ready?”

Marci: “Ready.”

The snowmobile shoots forward and up a steep pitch before we arrive at one of the resort’s snowmaking machines, or guns. Lynk removes his helmet and heads toward the large black snow gun. It’s one of seven on the mountain due to be replaced at season’s end.

"This is one of our older guns. This gun’s on a five-year lease and it’s on it’s last year now. It’ll be replaced with a gun that’s a little bit more efficient."

Harry Lynk is the Snowmaking Manager at Aspen Mountain. The black snowmaking "gun" turns on automatically when temperatures hit 24-degrees.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Still, it’s relatively efficient. It has its own weather probe and starts shooting snow up and onto the ground automatically when temperatures hit 24-degrees. Even if there’s already snow on the ground, the man-made stuff covers it, providing a more solid, long-lasting base. Lynk says a set of nozzles on the gun spray the snow.

"The colder it gets, it just starts adding more and more nozzles until it gets down to about 14 degrees when all the nozzles turn on, and you’ll be doing about 114 gallons per minute."

Crews on Aspen Mountain use about 400,000 gallons of water per season to make snow. In the spring, most of it ends up in the Roaring Fork River but, municipal water feeds the gun.

"You can see it," Lynk says as he points downhill. "See that round building that’s mostly buried? That’s our water tank down there."

Lynk says this snow gun will be replaced at the end of the season with a newer, more efficient model.
Credit Marci Krivonen

The Aspen Skiing Company started making snow after a drought in 1976 delayed opening day. The company operates four ski areas and they’re continually updating snowmaking equipment to more efficient models. Vice President of Mountain Operations, Rich Burkley, says the company’s aware the resource is precious.

"In the big picture nationwide, we make very little snow. We only have 600 acres of snow out of 5000 acres. So, we definitely rely on natural snow for most of our products."

At other resorts, man-made snow can make or break a season.

"For Sunlight, over the last few years, it’s been really important. We probably would not have been able to open without it," says Ross Terry.

He's in charge of operations for Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs.

"Sunlight is a north-facing bowl," he says. "We get good snow in the bowl, on the steeper terrain. But, down toward the bottom where it flattens out, the sun exposure is more powerful and we have a hard time keeping snow on there early in the season."

He calls snowmaking an “insurance policy” that allows the resort to stick to its opening and closing dates. In the future, the resort would like to expand its snowmaking to cover more of the mountain.

"You’ve seen over the last couple of decades, the ski industry really increasing the amount of snowmaking that takes place," says Boulder water attorney Glenn Porzak.

He says ski areas’ dependence on man-made snow is increasing because they need more snow to open early and build terrain parks.

"Virtually all of the ski areas have their terrain parks now."

Climate change and a sometimes tenuous water rights system may be the biggest challenges for resorts making snow, especially if they're planning on making more of it the future.

In 2012, the snow sports environmental advocate Protect Our Winters did a study on how climate change may impact ski resorts. It found, in Colorado, average winter temperatures could increase 5-to-7 degrees over the next century, leading to losses in snow depth. And warmer nighttime temps may limit the effectiveness of snowmaking.

Also, the ability for resorts to hang onto their water rights has come into question. In 2012, the US Forest Service issued a directive, where ski areas were to turn over their water rights to the federal government if they operated on public land. Resorts took the issue to court. Glenn Porzak represented the ski industry.

"When you got down to the heart of it, it really was federal control over state issued water rights," he says.

The Forest Service argued the directive kept the water with the land so that ski areas wouldn’t be allowed to sell their water rights. The judge sided with the ski areas but, the issue isn’t yet solved and more litigation could happen in the future.

Back on Aspen Mountain, snowmaking manager Harry Lynk picks up some powdery man-made snow.

"Pretty good snow quality here. Even with the way it is, you’d enjoy skiing this."

It’s too warm to run the snow guns on this afternoon, but cold temperatures are in the forecast, which means more man-made snow will cover this slope in the morning. 

Connecting the Drops is a year-long collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at yourwatercolorado.org.