Snowmaking Will Not Save Us

Why it isn't the answer to decreasing snowfall

Fall's the time when ski resorts start to fire up their snowmaking guns. But manmade snow is not the answer to a diminishing snowpack. PHOTO: Justin Cash

Fall’s the time when ski resorts start to fire up their snowmaking guns. But manmade snow is not the answer to a diminishing snowpack. PHOTO: Justin Cash

The first time I went to my local ski area last year—Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort in northern New Mexico—there was one run open and almost all the snow was manmade. To any bird flying over it must have been quite a scene: a mostly brown hill with a thin, continuous patch of white running from top to bottom.

But there I was, season pass in hand, anxious to put skis to snow. I’d waited all summer to strap on my boards and it seemed more important to finally be making turns than to worry about what it all meant. I was hungry. Still, the question lingered in the back of my head: What was the cost of this absurdity?

Porter Fox, whose book Deep was excerpted in the September issue of POWDER, says the snowpack in the Cascades is down 20-40 percent because of climate change. Here in the Rockies, the spring snowpack is down 20 percent. Climatologists estimate that two-thirds of ski resorts in Europe might have to close by 2100 and only four of the 14 major resorts on the East Coast might be afloat at that same time.

According to a report cited in a study released by Protect Our Winters (POW) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Park City, Utah will lose all mountain snow pack by the end the century while Aspen Mountain, Colorado snowpack will be confined to the top quarter of the mountain under a higher emissions scenario.”

To compensate for a lack of snowfall that has already dramatically declined, 88 percent of North American ski areas make snow, although according to an article in High Country News, some resorts are trying to mitigate the impacts as best they can. Heavenly Ski Resort in California uses computers to run its snowmaking operation, which helps make it more efficient. And Loveland Ski Area in Colorado has found a way to capture the runoff from its manmade snow and store the water so it can be reused. Both strategies are creative, but no amount of computerization or runoff capture will offset the amount of snow these large areas will need to make and the battles that will be fought over the water to make it.

Snowmaking is already a contentious issue in the West and several recent cases point to the kinds of problems that will undoubtedly crop up as other resorts turn to snow cannons to make sure they have enough snow on the slopes for opening day.


The most controversial fight has been taking place for a decade at the ski area outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. Arizona Snowbowl resort sits high in the San Francisco Peaks but has to rely on snowmaking to stay in business because of inconsistent snowfall due to geographical location. In what many thought would be a creative way to get around the snowfall problem, Snowbowl decided to make 100 percent of its manmade snow from Flagstaff’s treated sewage effluent. Using recycled water meant the ski area was not depleting other natural water resources.

But though the use of sewage has resolved one problem, it’s created another. Even though the water has been treated, studies have found hormones, pharmaceuticals, antibiotics and other chemicals present. Opponents of the project worry these chemicals might leach into the ground or affect people if they eat or otherwise ingest the snow. When the snow was pumped out of guns and onto the slopes for the first time last season it came out yellow.

And the decision has enraged local communities, including 13 Native American tribes who consider the ski area mountain sacred. For them, pumping treated sewage water onto the mountain is the same as pumping it onto the floor of a church.

“Our culture can still be reduced to something that is less important than the profit margin on a ski resort,” Klee Benally, a member of the Navajo tribe, told The New York Times. “That’s a very, very hard place to be in.”

Sipapu is also at the center of a fight over water resources. The resort, which bills itself as the first to open in New Mexico, hasn’t been able to open for the past several years without artificial snow and it’s only going to get harder. It’s an absurd boast for a ski area that sits at a lower elevation than other nearby areas.

For now, Sipapu is allowed to divert 5.9 million gallons each year from the Rio Pueblo, a tributary of the Rio Grande. Aware that its going to need more water, the resort applied for another 114 million gallons or 350 acre feet (to be offset by water rights purchased from a different river), which angered residents downstream who fear the river will essentially be sucked dry by such a large increase in pumping.

Karen Cohen, one of the downstream landowners, wrote a letter to the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer on behalf of herself, her husband Robert Templeton, and all the irrigators in the villages of Dixon and Embudo below Sipapu, disputing the claim that diverting more water wasn’t a big deal because the water the ski resort uses is “just flowing down the canyon in the late fall.”

“We are still irrigating in November,” Cohen wrote. “We are planting overwintering crops like garlic, and cover crops, and irrigating our orchards. In addition, the river is providing our drinking and household water from the saturation zone around the Rio Pueblo-Rio Embudo waterway… Wells going dry are already a problem in our area, and this action would exacerbate the problem.

“It is unjust and unfair to ask downstream acequia [ditch] communities to absorb massive increases in water withdrawals to compensate Sipapu for a changing climate, when we are already straining locally to cope with those changing conditions.”

At Sipapu Ski Resort in New Mexico, snowmaking's plays a big role in their rush to be the first to open. But the ski resort's high demand for water is at odds with local farmers who live downstream. PHOTO: Justin Cash

At Sipapu Ski Resort in New Mexico, snowmaking plays a big role in its rush to be the first to open. However, the ski resort’s high demand for water is at odds with local farmers who live downstream. PHOTO: Justin Cash

In their own defense, ski areas like Sipapu roll out a number of arguments about the low impact and necessity of snowmaking. One of the first statistics they quote is the return rate of 80 percent, which means 80 percent of water pumped onto the hill normally makes its way back to the original source. Eighty percent is a much better return rate than what you might get by watering your grass. But landowners like Cohen, who can claim a 50 percent return rate flow from agriculture, say that everyone has to cut back, even if snowmaking is one of the least wasteful uses of the water. Farmers in her community have made the collective decision to use less water and grow fewer crops, which has caused a financial strain because many rely on farming for part of their income.

There are also concerns about how pumping water for snowmaking will affect local wildlife and plant life in the riparian area around Sipapu and other ski areas. Some states like Colorado have established systems where they try to ensure there is enough water in the river to support a healthy watershed. But that system is easily trumped if ski areas have senior water rights, which means they have first shot at the water and can use however much they’ve purchased, even if it forces the river below those minimums.

Resorts will argue that without the ability to make snow there will be dire economic consequences. According to the Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council report, American ski resorts employed 75,900 people in the 2009/2010 winter. That’s a lot of jobs, but also a conflated argument. Most ski area jobs are temporary, few come with benefits, and most are low-paying.

As Cohen’s husband Robert Templeton says in an interview with High Country News, the arguments in favor of ski areas’ needs to make snow are all eventually trumped by the dire predictions for what we can expect in terms of natural snowfall over the coming decades. The POW and NRDC report says it’s expected that temperatures will rise between five and six degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where Sipapu sits. If that’s true, snow depths could drop 50 to 75 percent below the 1960 to 1990 average. No amount of water from the local river can overcome those odds. He says snowmaking is a stopgap at best and that we have to take the long view. Tough times are already here, and more are coming.

“We’re looking at a dwindling resource, and there are going to have to be difficult questions asked,” he says. “I think we’re coming to a time where push is coming to shove.”

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  • Snowmaker

    In response to the discolored snow at Arizona Snowbowl, nearly all snowmaking lines will push discolored snow when they are first used, due to dirt and corrosion within the piping that accumulates during the 8 months they are either free from water or have residual water in them.

  • Verbier Kev

    Strange I was just reading a report that says Europe will have its coldest winter in 100 years, this year..

    • John Doe

      Weather vs. climate. Learn the difference. You can’t point to one winter to prove a point you’re trying to make about the evolving climate.

      • Mike

        Strange, Al Gore and his friends have been pushing weather events as proof of AGW for years.

        • craigc

          Exactly, just like the category 8 hurricanes…….

      • Shredthegnarpow

        The climates been evolving for saaaaayyy 4.6 billion years? You can disagree with that statement, but its true. The Earth is heating up, so what? The ski hills will be un-skialbe in 100 years, so what? “Humans are to blame for all the worlds problems”, shall we start killing humans? Lets get real with the Climate Change argument, too many people bitching about it , and doing nothing to change it.

    • Verbier Kev

      Here in Switzerland the ice melts, collected by the dam, turned into electricity, runs down the hill, more electricity, then some of the water is pumped up the hill to make snow, (some comes from the lakes), the snow melts, runs down the mountain, back to the river, through 2 further hydro dams. Now I don’t see anything wrong with the way the snow is made here!! Now what part of bad for the climate does this fit into…

  • craigc

    This is fear mongering hype, I only got half way through it…
    Leave the Agenda Driven BS out of this magazine, please…
    I am a subscriber and do so to help keep print mags in business…
    I have no problem not being a subscriber, just saying…

    • Mike

      That’s exactly why I stopped being a subscriber. There is no reason to push junk science in this magazine. Satellite data shows the climate has been trending cooler. Yet, this magazine continues to push this garbage.

  • TruBLivr

    Well golly! These are some informed comments. I recommend logging off the ski websites and doing some reading. You know, like books and stuff. Might learn something. Or not. In any case, I’m quite sure your average meathead skier reading this post isn’t (read: IS NOT) in any way qualified to dispute 99.7 percent of scientists worldwide. Just sprayin’…

    • Mike

      99.7 percent? What a joke…and lie. Qualified? How are you qualified? Because you read a newspaper article or two? Maybe you watched a movie filled with inaccuracies and lies? I wrote my thesis on climate change and am near a masters in meteorology and climatology. I’d say I’m a little better qualified than the politicians pretending to be scientists preying on people like you.

      • TruBLivr

        Whoa Mike! Glad I checked back to see if the penis grew. And it did. Um yeah… I don’t look to politicians for answers on anything these days (let alone science). That was both presumptuous and insulting. Secondly, your research is a sample size of exactly one… i.e. meaningless when put into the context of nobel laureate scientists worldwide. Nevertheless, congratulations on your “near” masters in meteorology. If I had a dime for every meteorologist spouting off about something as complex as climate change, why, I could afford to go heli skiing! And Tired… who told you the polar ice caps grew 60% this year? Again, stop reading ski websites and try a 7th grade earth science textbook. You’ll be better off for your efforts.

        • TruBLivr

          Oh, and Mike, perhaps you’d consider sharing your thesis?Did you do any research yourself or just try and interpret the work of others? Please let us know if your defense is successful. I just love people who maintain that THEY know what’s up while everyone else is full of s***. You sound like the real deal to me bro.

          • Mike

            Half of my thesis was crap actually. I was an alarmist back then and based a lot of the stuff on the junk science and junk scientists you worship. Guess you haven’t made your way through the cherry-picked BS yet to see that those so-called scientists are politicians. Anyway, I began reworking my thesis after already receiving fantastic reviews on it by actually looking at both sides of the argument which alarmists like yourself refuse to look at or even believe exists. I studied with meteorologists, chemists, physicists, and air quality specialists while delving for the truth. I actually learned to think for myself. Overall, I’ve been studying climate change for 15 or so years. Don’t worry, I used to be like you too. There’s still hope for you despite your childlike ignorance. But I sadly don’t have time to change your mind. I have more important things to do than argue with a seemingly uneducated person just looking to pick a fight in someplace he has no business. Maybe you should just stick to skiing. I’ll let the climate do my talking. It’s already doing it. You just have to listen and look at the real historical climate data, not data that has been cherry-picked and changed to fit a propaganda machine’s hypothesis. Goodness, you make it so tempting to refute all the bad info you believe but it would seriously take days to weeks with you. I wish I had the time. Okay, two last things…and then I’m really getting back to something more meaningful. You admit that climate change is complex. Hey, we agree on something! But that’s not what most alarmists believe…until then need a reason as to why their predictions always bust. But basically, they blame CO2 for just about everything. That doesn’t sound very complex to me. If it is so complex, isn’t it possible that there is another driver or two for the changes we see? But let’s not talk about the oceans or the sun or the UHI effect. CO2 is the devil! Keep those blinders on so that we can keep our jobs and keep the money flowing. If we weren’t wasting so much money fighting it, it might actually be funny. As to your dime a dozen meteorologist statement, you do realize that most real meteorologists (not necessarily weather men and women) study climatology extensively, right? Just because you have a meteorology job doesn’t mean you don’t have the credentials to be a climatologist. And if you are studying weather daily for years and years, aren’t you then studying climate? Anyway, that’s just my two cents…and a few friendly personal jabs. All in good fun and fighting.

          • TruBLvr

            Mike! You son of a gun. Any group trying to come to a consensus on anything is going to eventually have to deal with “politics.” So yes, in that sense, scientists are politicians. And everyone knows (or should) that as human beings susceptible to the allure of money and notoriety (or just plain greed), scientists are bought and sold daily. Which is exactly why I have about as much respect as you do for your own profession (or hobby?).
            And as a scientist, that makes you…what? Above it all? No. You’re just a scientist/politician who’s changed his beliefs and is righteous about it. So I’ll leave the squinting at climate models and dickering with numbers to you and your minions. Doesn’t change the fact that emissions are bad. Doubt it? Get in the garage, close the doors and let your car run for a while. How’s that treating you? Still doubt it? Travel. Go to Asia, Central America, or wherever else is crowded and thick with emissions. Still think CO2 is getting a bad rap? Then you’re either an idiot or some polluting business already bought your ass and told you to yell “junk science” thinking (correctly) that it would confuse the issue.

          • TruBLvr

            And Jakob is on the right track. Snowmaking won’t help. In fact, the supreme irony is that resort skiing is, in part, causing its own demise. Albeit with the help of solar and ocean cycles (wink, wink, Mike). Fact is, I didn’t grow up skiing at resorts, didn’t learn to ski at a resort, and don’t ski at resorts now. So I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Unlike the tens of millions living in poverty who won’t be able to afford to move (or feed) their families when mother nature does her thing in the coming years. That’s the real gnar. Who could care less about the future of resort skiing in the face of world suffering? That’s some shallow, narcissistic crap. But Mike will probably still be arguing the minutiae of why everyone else is a fool, liar, or gullible junk science fanatic. Not because he loves science, but because he’s desperately trying to show his republican daddy that he can be just as shallow and egocentric as the worst of them.

        • Shredthegnarpow

          Are you changing your everyday habits to prevent climate change? Answer honestly. Thought not. Time to get off your high horse, the four year old behind you has a turn next.

          • TruBLvr

            Shred, you make some decent points (albeit oversimplified for the sake of a thread). First of all, don’t you tell me about the four year old behind me. I know all about him and what his world will be like. Second, I don’t sit on a high horse so I’m not worried about falling off. When I read sneering condescension from psuedo scientists like Mike up there claiming “lies” and “junk science” from people with 30 years of climate study under their belts (as opposed to the 2 or 3 years for the know it all with a “near masters”), I’m going to call it out.

          • Mike

            Don’t knock being on a high horse…the weather’s great up here.

          • clown

            i think this article’s argument was on water usage and not climate change. Regardless if climate change is occurring or not (and whatever factors they may be), the bottom line is that water is being pumped onto ski pistes. you guys have strayed way off topic because of your egos.

          • Mike

            And 30 years experience would put us at 1983. Tell me how many major solar cycles and how many major ocean cycles they have seen in that time? What are the guys who have been in climatology for 50 or 60 years saying? Oh, but they’re too old to remember anything anyways, those old timers that are out of touch. We’ll just exclude what they think cause they’re old.

  • Tired of this crap!

    Not sure if it means anything but the polar ice caps grew 60% this past year and predictions are now saying this could continue for the next 15 years.
    So who really knows?????

  • Shredthegnarpow

    Jakob, funny how the one thing that is keeping snow sports alive (parks for rats) is the one thing that uses the most man-made snow. Sucks for the agriculturists, certainly, and maybe the answer for small hills like yours is to just shut down. I live near one of the “Bigs” so I watch and listen to water spewed into a caracas toss every October through January, for the one week out of the year the best can show the world how 1% of snow-riders can huck themselves. We all know what happens the rest of the 110 days the hill is open. Lets get the climatologists, marketers, and ad-agencies together and see if we can’t hash this thing out? Spoiler alert you can’t! These three entities will never get along as long as profit is the bottom line. And agricultural towns down stream will keep struggling with water rights.

    • TruBLvr

      Shred, whats an agriculturalist? I’m not sure that’s a word. Anyway, the farmers are working off of a seriously flawed system of backdoor dealing and house of cards water rights. And they deserve to fail since the vast majority are growing schwag crops like hay grass and sugar beets for cheap red meat and soda. That’s arguably more of waste of water than snowmaking. While it’s true that agriculture is more important to the world than the need for gnar, farming needs a serious overhaul. Let’s be careful about pitting farmers against skiers since it really doesn’t work that way. Without a slut’s take of subsidies and tax exemptions, they wouldn’t be in business anyway.

  • yodaddy

    Propaganda is a ruse to instill fear

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