Under the gun
Editor’s note: Next week The Vail Trail will take a closer look at snowmaking and streamflow issues in Eagle and Summit counties.Recent rains have helped soothe Colorado’s chapped and blistered psyche, but reservoirs and stream flows remain near record-low levels, and it’s far from clear what the important fall snowmaking season holds. Skiing, of course, has long ceased to be just a seasonal whim, with much more riding on November snow than just a few eager skiers and snowboarders.Some Colorado ski industry officials used a recent round of reporting by the national media to mount a PR campaign of sorts, aimed at dispelling a summer’s worth of wildfire and drought news. The message was intended to reassure potential guests at a time when they are thinking about booking winter vacations. Resorts spread the word that there’s plenty of water and that they’ll be able to whiten the slopes with or without Mother Nature’s help.But most of those stories skirted the fundamental question of whether there is enough water both for snowmaking and to sustain habitat for trout and other aquatic life during the critical fall and early winter, when streams are already at their lowest levels. Clearly, skiers and snowboarders crave those early season turns, and ski town residents know how crucial snowmaking is to their economy. But just as clearly, few people favor snowmaking if it means harming the environment.Trying to determine how much water will be available in November is speculative, since no one knows what the weather will bring in the next few months. But based on the current all-time record low flows in some streams, ski areas that don’t have much water in storage and rely on direct stream depletions for snowmaking could face limitations come November. Some water experts say it could come down to whether the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) enforces its minimum instream flows, set to protect the environment to a reasonable degree.In-depth accounts in local ski town newspapers had resort officials at Aspen and Crested Butte acknowledging that they may have to adjust snowmaking operations based on water availability. Those adjustments likely would not affect the quality of the ski experience for guests, the officials explained.With the exception of Arapahoe Basin, ski areas in Summit and Eagle counties appear to be better prepared than most. VR President Andy Daly offered reassurances to employees in a Sept. 5 memo, explaining that local ski areas have spent “nearly 20 years and millions of dollars preparing for a drought cycle such as this, by purchasing water rights, developing reservoirs and building more efficient snowmaking systems."According to Daly’s memo, water stored in Eagle Park Reservoir, Homestake Reservoir and Black Lakes is available for snowmaking at Vail and Beaver Creek. Breckenridge also has rights to water in upstream reservoirs, enabling the company to "release (water) into the respective rivers and then take out only what we put in."Each ski area will face a unique set of circumstances, with factors like water rights, weather conditions, stream flows and storage capacity all helping to determine if and when the snow guns will be fired up. In some cases, state-mandated minimum instream flows set to protect the environment to a reasonable degree could limit diversion rates. In a worst-case scenario, some areas could even be left completely high and dry. But the general consensus is that there will be at least some water available for snowmaking the question is, how much?"There will be snowmaking. The amount that’s made and the timing will depend on a wide variety of factors," says ski area attorney Harris Sherman, who developed the instream flow program when he headed the Colorado Division of Natural Resources in the 1970s.Sherman says officials with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) are currently trying to schedule a series of meetings with ski areas to explain how the instream flow system works. Sherman says it’s important to be aware of nuances such as seasonal variations in the requirements and any conditions associated with instream flows. Resorts are also evaluating their snowmaking systems and planned operations to find the greatest efficiencies.At the same time, hydrologists are evaluating current flows and trying to project how they might fluctuate during the snowmaking season under various weather scenarios. That data is compared to instream flow requirements for any given stream segment.Another factor in the equation is biological data where is the critical over-wintering and spawning habitat for trout, and how much water is available to sustain those functions? Along stream segments where the state has set minimum flows, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s aquatic biologists have had some input, consulting with the CWCB to determine a water level that will offer a "reasonable" degree of protection. In other instances at A-Basin, for example the Forest Service requires bypass flows to protect downstream habitat."It’s going to be interesting. Will the state engineer enforce the minimum stream flows?" asks Summit County Commissioner Tom Long, a long-time observer of the state water scene. "This is the year to see if the state’s instream flow rights just exist on paper," Long adds."Where the CWCB has senior rights, it will call them to keep the stream flows at required levels," says Ted Kowalski, an official with the state’s instream flow protection program. "The CWCB holds these decrees and this is the year that it’s really important. That’s where that flow should kick on to protect the environment to a reasonable degree."Along with close scrutiny by the state, volunteers with Colorado Trout Unlimited will also be watching water levels, says Dave Nickum, the conservation group’s executive director."We will be watching the streams closely to make sure the ski areas live up to their obligations to maintain minimum flows," Nickum says. "We’ll be trying to keep an eye on the gauges and we have some volunteers keeping an eye on the Snake River (in Summit County) specifically."Nickum says those resorts with adequate upstream storage appear to be in a better position than areas that rely on direct flow rights, diverting water straight from the streams into a snowmaking system. "We’ll really be watching the Snake and the Blue to see what is going on with snowmaking at Keystone and Breckenridge," Nickum says of the two Vail Resorts’ areas in Summit County, typically two of the first resorts in the state to open each season.
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