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."
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.”