Crunch time for snowmaking?
It’s only early August, but here in Summit County the heart of Colorado ski country resort officials are nervously gauging streams and reservoirs with an eye toward snowmaking season, just a few months away. Thanks to an economy that just can’t seem to shake those Enron blues, anxiety levels were already running high. And a recent pronouncement by state water officials that snowmaking at some ski areas may be in question didn’t help at all.With flows in some streams dropping to record low levels, the question is whether Vail Resorts’ Keystone ski area will be able to tap its water rights in the Snake River while still meeting its obligation to preserve state-mandated minimum stream flows set to preserve aquatic habitat. The same goes for VR’s Breckenridge, which takes its snowmaking water from the Blue River.Keystone, with the state’s most extensive snowmaking system, has taken as much as half the total volume of the Snake River’s flow at times during previous seasons. None of the areas have extensive on-site water storage capabilities, although Breckenridge and Copper at least owns significant wet water upstream reservoirs.But the state water commissioner responsible for monitoring water rights and stream flows in the area recently warned Summit County business and political leaders that the stored water may not be enough to offset stream flows that could drop to unprecedented levels. As temperatures start to dip below freezing, what little water remains in the streams starts to freeze, leaving less available for withdrawal.So far, ski area officials are playing it cool, saying it’s too early to panic. But it will be interesting to watch their actions as crunch time approaches. Snowmaking has become such a crucial aspect of early season operations that it’s hard to imagine how it could be anything other than business as usual.And maybe, if this intensely dry period turns out to be a one-year anomaly, it will be just that. Maybe the resorts will find a way to finesse and finagle their way around the minimum stream flows, at least for this season. After all, they employ some the best attorneys in the business, including Harris Sherman, who helped create Colorado’s instream flow program.But it could get more interesting if the drought persists for another year or two. The ski industry could run into an image problem if it’s seen as frivolously using water for recreation while farmers who suffer catastrophic crop losses have their properties foreclosed on.Based on established patterns of behavior, my guess is that the industry won’t back off there’s simply too much at stake. If the drought continues, I anticipate that the resort lobby will join the call for construction of more storage facilities.Look for proposals to build more reservoirs high along the Continental Divide, where water can be shunted to the Front Range or down the West Slope, where it could be used for snowmaking or to augment stream flows for rafting and to support trout populations. Certainly, such proposals should be considered and evaluated for potential benefits and adverse impacts as part of a statewide water planning effort.But as a life-long skier with strong environmental inclinations, I’d like to see the ski industry use this as an opportunity to re-assess and turn down a softer, more sustainable path by trying to lower the artificially high and irrational expectations it helped create in the first place. Resorts should try to dispel, rather than perpetuate the perception that October turns are part of a "normal" ski season.Skiers as a whole are a fairly reasonable bunch and until very recently, most of us realized that winter starts in late December, not mid-October. I don’t think it would take too much coaxing to convince us that maybe some of that water would be better left in the rivers, for fish and to support the livelihood of other downstream users.Bob Berwyn is freelance writer in Silverthorne, where he takes his snow any way he can get it.
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