Snowmaking in a drought – ski resorts rely on it more and more as snow falls later and less in the mountains, but is it worth it?
Snowmaking typically draws water from streams or reservoirs near ski resorts, and uses compressed air and electricity to blow the water as near-vapor into freezing air. The result? Massive piles of fluffy crystal snow. The process was invented in the 1950s, and became widespread during a severe drought in the late 1970s.
Nearly 40 percent of Colorado is considered to be in a state of severe drought, with most of the rest of the state in conditions between “moderate drought” and “extremely dry.” Only tiny slivers are not classified as being in a drought at all. Exacerbating the problem, this has so far been Colorado’s warmest and driest winter on record.
In light of that, sucking up about 1.5 billion gallons of water to make playgrounds for skiers seems inappropriately extravagant. But according to Kevin Rein, director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, that amount is less than 0.1 percent of Colorado’s water use. 85 percent, for comparison, is drawn for agricultural use. And most water used in snowmaking returns to the water table come spring.
“It’s part of our tourism, it’s part of what we do in Colorado,” said Rein. Skiing generates nearly $5 billion a year in economic output and $1.9 billion in wages, and supports almost 50,000 year-round jobs. It’s crucial to the economy of much of the rural portion of the state.
“There are impacts. They’re regrettable. We’d 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 towns depend on your ski resort operating. And so this is a necessary evil.”