Snowmaking won’t drain Eagle County dry |

Snowmaking won’t drain Eagle County dry

Kelly Coffey
The Vail Trail file photo/ Matt IndenThird-year snowmaker Thad Pittenger changes the direction of a gun to make sure the man-made snow is falling in the right place for the upcoming season.

Ski resorts wouldn’t be much without the white stuff, and Vail Resorts has ensured there will be plenty of it in the future.

Vail Mountain alone consumes 110-million gallons of water a year for snowmaking, but resort and local water officials say the resort has rights to enough water to survive a drought and increased demand from the county’s booming population.

The resort company, which owns and operates Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, has rights to water in four reservoirs, and has the water reserves they’ve created on both ski mountains.

Bill Jensen, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Vail Resorts, said the ski company is doing better than most of their peers in that regard.

“Most experts would say that we’re probably at or near the top as far as water resources that we control,” he said.

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Don’t expect the rivers to run dry from snowmaking, either. Vail Resorts, which owns Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, must replace any water they take out from their on-mountain reservoirs, said Dennis Gelvin, general manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

With that replacement from local reservoirs, the net effect of snowmaking is zero during the winter, said Glenn Porzak, water rights attorney for Vail Resorts. In fact, the spring runoff from melting snow gets a boost when most of that man-made snow melts and returns to the Gore Creek and Eagle River, he said.

In low-flow years, Vail Resorts will release water from the upstream reservoirs (Black Lake, Eagle Park and Homestake) to assure that the Gore Creek and Eagle River maintain a healthy water level.

In high-flow years, Vail Resorts taps into the Green Mountain reservoir near Dotsero.

“You manage your storage for the driest years, and use Green Mountain for the wet years,” Porzak said.

The biggest fish in this water-rights pond is not Vail Resorts, but the Shoshone Hydroelectric Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon. The power plant has held senior water rights to the Eagle River, which is a tributary to the Colorado River, since 1902, he said.

Vail Resorts has spent 30 years collecting water rights to make sure both Vail and Beaver Creek will have enough for snowmaking regardless of drought or future water needs from a growing population, Porzak said.

Unlike Loveland, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin, Vail and Beaver Creek have never used snowmaking to open their ski seasons at the earliest possible time. Rather, the local resorts use snowmaking to assure there is enough snow on the popular lower runs like Born Free and Bear Tree at Vail, and Gold Dust on Beaver Creek. These are the “primary mountain egress runs,” according to Jensen, meaning these runs see a lot traffic from skiers making their way to the base. There are also the terrain parks on both mountains, and the Birds of Prey downhill course on Beaver Creek, that take a large chunk of snowmaking resources.

Though snowmaking on these mountains rarely goes beyond December, it does play a part in extending the season on the other end.

“Much of what we make in November and December gets us through April,” said Jensen. “It is as valuable to us in the last six weeks as in the first.”

There has been an increase in snowmaking for both Vail and Beaver Creek in the last few years. The reason? Global warming? A pickier clientele? Neither. It’s the terrain parks, which require a “huge amount of snow,” Porzak said.

Otherwise the amount of snowmaking has been relatively consistent, aside from the year-to-year fluctuations in how much it snows, he said.

Vail’s terrain park uses 40-50 million gallons of snowmaking water, Jensen said.

That 110 million gallons of water diverted for Vail’s snowmaking? “It’s less than what a golf course uses over the summer,” Jensen said. VT

Kelly Coffey is a regular contributor to The Vail Trail. He can reached at

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