Ski resorts aim for more efficient snowmaking in times of drought

DENVER — The sight can be shocking during an extreme drought: snow cannons lined up on the mountainside, blasting precious flakes of crystal down a ski slope as the rest of the country goes thirsty.

Snow accumulation in the western United States has decreased by approximately 20% over the past century, making artificial snow more vital to opening ski resorts each year and fueling ski resort economies. as they head into an uncertain future.

As the effects of drought and climate change are increasingly felt, the ski industry has invested millions of dollars in more efficient snowmaking systems amid questions about whether the practice is a judicious use of energy and water.

“There are impacts. They are regrettable. We would rather not have to make snow,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. “But our regional economy and the economies of all ski resorts depend on the operation of your ski resort. And so it’s a necessary evil.”

Snowmaking has been around since at least the 1950s, but the practice became widespread in the West after a severe drought in the late 1970s. According to the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association, about 87% of 337 US alpine resorts represented by the trade group have snowmaking capabilities.

Many resorts draw water from nearby streams or reservoirs and typically use compressed air and electricity to blow snow piles up the slopes when it’s cold. These piles are then spread into a base layer that allows stations to open in early winter and stay open through spring.

An analysis of most ski resorts in Colorado found that artificial snowmaking diverts about 1.5 billion gallons (6.8 billion liters) of water a year in the state, said engineer Kevin Rein. of State and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. That’s enough to fill about 2,200 Olympic swimming pools.

That sounds like a lot, but Rein said snowmaking accounts for less than a tenth of 1% of the water diverted in the state, with agriculture getting about 85%. In addition, approximately 80% of the water used for snowmaking returns to the watershed during spring snowmelt.

Snowmaking is recognized by the courts as a “beneficial use” in Colorado, said Rein, whose agency regulates the process. “It’s part of our tourism, it’s part of what we do in Colorado.”

But Patrick Belmont, professor and head of the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, said it’s important to note that a lot of energy is used when making snow and that much water is lost through evaporation and sublimation.

“It’s not trivial, especially in a place where we don’t have a lot of water at the start. … Every drop of water counts,” he said.

Belmont, an avid skier who recently published a high-profile study on snowmaking and climate change, is also concerned that artificial snow, which is denser and melts later than real snow, could affect course flows. ‘water.

“There are a lot of fish that take their cues for things like when to spawn or when to do different things in their lives based on how the streams go up or down. So we’re modifying those kinds of natural cues for some of them. them, these bodies,” he said.

Ski resorts have made huge strides to become more efficient and environmentally friendly, said Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Company. But he also recalled a time when they often didn’t pay much attention to the weather forecast, only to see the fruits of their labor melt away in the hot afternoon sun.

“One way the industry got smarter is they said, ‘Look, we’re not going to snow if it’s not cold and there’s no forecast. to keep it cold,” he said. “It sounds dumb and analog, but this industry is historically very analog.”

Many resorts have also invested heavily in recent years to improve their snowmaking operations. Some have dug storage ponds to collect spring water when it is plentiful, while a few are considering the use of reclaimed wastewater.

Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which has 37 ski resorts in the United States, Canada and Australia, announced in an earnings call in December an investment of $3.6 million in its sustainability efforts this year, in particular by making its snowmaking operations more energy efficient.

In recent years, the company has upgraded more than 400 snow cannons at its stations to blow more snow with less energy in less time. Meanwhile, Breckenridge, which is owned by Vail Resorts and is one of the largest and most popular ski areas in the country, is getting 110 efficient snow cannons.

“If I can produce all the snow we need in a third of the time, that’s a huge energy saving. It’s a huge labor savings,” said Kate Schifani, snowmaking manager at Colorado’s Vail Mountain Resort.

Vail’s modern snow cannons can regulate water flow and automatically shut off when the weather gets too hot – a major upgrade over older technology that required workers to monitor temperatures and manually shut off the system.

In addition to using water more efficiently, ski areas are harnessing more renewable energy to power snow cannons, which account for about 20% of a typical resort’s energy consumption.

The National Ski Areas Association’s decade-old “Climate Challenge” program encourages resorts to inventory and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as advocate for legislation to combat against climate change.

Since its inception, the voluntary program has reduced emissions by about 129,300 tonnes (117,300 metric tons), according to the group. Participating stations have also purchased renewable energy which represents an additional reduction of approximately 242,500 tonnes (220,000 metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions. These are tiny amounts compared to the 6 billion tons (5.4 billion metric tons) of greenhouse gases produced by the United States in 2021 – a total of about 32 minutes of carbon emissions from the country. – according to the independent group Rhodium.

But defenders say it’s a start.

“We can do what we can in our own operations, but if there is to be a future in outdoor recreation and a future for humanity in general, we are going to need all the solutions we can find. “said Adrienne Saia. Isaac, spokesman for the NSAA. “We need to make changes now.”

Schendler, who warns that the ski industry is not on track to be viable beyond 2050, agrees.

“The industry has always reacted to climate change by saying, ‘We’re going to clean up our operations, we’re going to make good snow and we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint,’ he said. noble and moral and good business, but it is not a solution to a global problem.

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Associated Press video reporter Brittany Peterson in Vail and science writer Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment.

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