The Problem with Fake Snow

Deemed a "necessary evil," snowmaking drags ski resorts through the mud

The merits of artificial snowmaking have been debated since the first fake flake covered a snowless ski trail in the 1950s. Although the environmentally questionable practice didn’t fully catch on in the U.S. until the 1970s, today it is commonplace throughout the ski industry. In fact, in 2015, it’s easier to single out ski areas that don’t use human-made snow as opposed to those that do, as almost 90 percent of all ski resorts in North America utilize the technology.

Even Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Ski Company—a resort that is commonly referenced as a leader in environmentally sensitive ski practices—believes in it. “It’s the price of doing business, a necessary evil,” he says. “You can’t operate in the modern ski world at the level we do without it. It’s very environmentally damaging, very energy and water intensive.”

As the global climate continues to warm, snowmaking will continue to become routine.

Schendler’s perspective speaks to the unfortunate truth. The last few winters in the American West are indicative of an altered weather pattern. As the global climate continues to warm, snowmaking will continue to become routine. On a macro scale, the ski industry has already shifted toward a greater reliance on high-priced real estate and other class-driven amenities to continue its growth from a traditional economic perspective. But no matter how exclusive resort property becomes, without reliable snow for skiers, the sport of skiing is in serious jeopardy.

The lack of natural snow is now such a worry that environmental impacts attached to snowmaking have become more of a negative externality than something to actually mitigate. What started as an everyday practice in the Midwest and the East Coast has now become just as prevalent as far north as Canada and Alaska. This past June, Whistler Blackcomb announced plans for a snowmaking pilot project to help preserve the Horstman Glacier. As much as implementing snowmaking to help preserve a glacier seems ridiculous, no ski resort has gone through such lengths to ensure access to artificial snow, or seen as much controversy in its proposal to go from all natural snow to being assisted by fake snow, as Arizona Snowbowl.

In 2002, Snowbowl proposed to be the first ski area in the world to use 100 percent reclaimed wastewater for artificial snowmaking. Reaction to their proposal has been dependent on myriad factors, most notably questioning what exactly reclaimed wastewater is. It’s a substance—treated effluent to be precise—that is governed by both state and federal regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has its own set of rules, as does the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). This recycled water, the same water that flushes from local residents’ toilets, showers, sinks, and everywhere in between, has received an “A” and “A+” grade from ADEQ. This means that reclaimed wastewater passed every test and was so “clean,” a person could theoretically drink it.

No ski resort has gone through such lengths to ensure access to artificial snow, or seen as much controversy in its proposal to go from all natural snow to being assisted by fake snow, as Arizona Snowbowl.

In 2002, and later in 2010, Dr. Tyrone Hayes from the University of California, Berkeley, published research addressing the potential downstream effects from reclaimed wastewater facilities, most notably from the herbicide atrazine. Unfortunately, his results suggest the potential long-term effects from adding such an input into the environment could be devastating. Focusing on frogs—an indicator species of water quality health—he found entire populations had become either feminized or hermaphroditic, the atrazine eliminating all males. Why does this matter in relation to Snowbowl? Atrazine is just one of the many things that is absent on the ADEQ checklist for what meets A+ graded reclaimed wastewater. And while the agency doesn’t allow this water to be in swimming pools, it’s OK to blow it over a ski hill because it doesn’t consider skiing to be a full-immersion water activity.

The ADEQ and EPA have tests that look for a specific list of inputs that ultimately formulate whether a grade for treated effluent is good or bad. If no bad inputs are found in the treated water, it’s given a good grade. However, as in the case of Snowbowl, ADEQ does not test for every input that could be found in the treated effluent. So things like atrazine, a known endocrine disruptor, have slipped through the regulatory cracks, yet it still received a grade of A+. This makes it hard to know whether Snowbowl’s snow actually has atrazine, but it raises serious questions about using treated wastewater for artificial snow.

Snowbowl, which is independently owned and receives about 260 inches of yearly snowfall, has fought for years in state and federal courts to carry out its proposal. The resort began its first full season of using treated sewage water to make artificial snow in 2013. It’s a gamble with the local ecosystem, and it’s not cheap. The 60-million-plus gallons of reclaimed wastewater the city of Flagstaff has made available to Snowbowl costs upward of $100,000. Now factor in about 30 snow guns at $30,000 a pop and this little desert ski area just became a massive operation.

To spray reclaimed effluent on these mountains has been compared to urinating and defecating on the Vatican.

To make this particular case even more contentious, more than 13 Native American tribes hold the San Francisco Peaks as their most holy place on earth. To spray reclaimed effluent on these mountains has been compared to urinating and defecating on the Vatican. As one tribal activist put it, “The real argument [versus Snowbowl] is against snowmaking with effluent on the sacred mountain and the impacts to natural and cultural resources. Skiing is OK, but snowmaking is not because it’s a spit in the face to the Kachina spirits, the natural snowmakers.”

So what does this have to do with skiing? Everything, because it speaks to the state of the ski industry as a whole, and the length by which some people are willing to go to continue to make a profit. It’s not about skiing anymore. If it was, would a lift ticket at Vail really cost $145? Skiers and snowboarders are far from saints— annually globe-trotting to find the most exotic places to ignite their spirits—but the question must be asked: At what point does the industry stop and realize that not only is the ski industry driven by real-estate profits more than anything, it’s also more reliant on fake snow than the real stuff that got us all hooked in the first place? I’m a skier, through and through, and I seek out face shots as much as possible, but when a plan like Snowbowl’s puts so much at risk, is it really worth it?

PHOTO: Justin Cash