The manmade misfortune of the ski industry

The man-made misfortune of the ski industry

While several resorts in Colorado kicked off their ski seasons with above average snowfall, ski areas around the Tahoe Basin faced a dry fall season, relying heavily on snowmaking operations to stay in line with opening dates.

For many ski areas, snowmaking is an essential practice in order to get the season’s operations underway, a common practice that has been in place since the 1950’s. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 91 percent of all ski resorts use snowmaking. Of those resorts, snowmaking capacity has increased by 60 percent in the last 20 years. While the practice is usually associated with positivity for the promise of resort openings, environmental concerns loom within its operations.

The most recent California Climate Assessment, released in August 2018, states that, “climate change is already underway in the Sierra Nevada region, affecting heat and precipitation extremes, with long-term warming trends, declining snowpacks, and changes in streamflow timing.” In the next 100 years, temperatures in the Sierra Nevada’s are projected to warm by six to nine degrees fahrenheit. Enough warming to change snow to rain during storms by about 1,500 to 3,000 feet. These warming trends ultimately correlate to increased artificial snow production for the vitality of ski resorts.

Snow machines have become more efficient in recent years, but are still intensive on water and energy resources, posing serious sustainability questions. Ski areas typically use anywhere from 50, to 400 hundred million gallons of water per season which can become costly. Peak Resorts Inc, estimates that ski areas will annually spend anywhere from 500,000 to 3.5 million dollars for snowmaking.

Hunter Sykes, is an environmental sustainability consultant who closely analyzes the outdoor industry and created the documentary, Resorting to Madness, a film about the impacts of ski resort development. Sykes says that snowmaking is difficult to make sustainable, as compressing air and pumping water up a mountain is incredibly energy intensive. “About 17 to 18 percent of the U.S. energy grid is made up of renewable or alternative resources like hydro, solar, wind, geo, and biomass, most of which have some negative externalities as well.” Sykes said. “Thus, pretty much every ski area utilizing snowmaking is drawing on power generated by fossil fuels.”

A variety of energy sources can be hard to come by, especially at small-independently owned ski areas. A resort may have only one option when it comes to purchasing energy, depending on how the grid is set-up, similar to cable T.V. In Durango, Colorado Purgatory Resort’s only option for energy comes from La Plata Electric which is powered mostly by burning coal.

“Some ski areas have been able to generate some of their own renewable power (wind, solar, micro-hydro) but these efforts don’t create enough energy to typically run a snowmaking system, they are subject to fickle weather and seasonal changes,” Sykes said. “Often the geography and/or ownership of nearby land can discourage development, and storage of energy for use later is difficult to do.”

Snowmaking’s other big impact comes from water, and its quality. Resorts often take water during the lowest flows of the year which can harm and endanger aquatic life. This isn’t always true since some ski areas store water in the spring runoff to be used in the fall, but this interrupts the natural flow of snowmelt returning to its source. An estimated five to 30 percent is lost to evaporation and absorption alone.

In order to combat the on going water crises in northern Arizona, Snowbowl Resort became the first U.S. ski area to blow snow from 100 percent treated wastewater in 2013, to help save scarce fresh water for drinking. While these practices are already common in parts of Europe and Australia, the use of waste water, while deemed safe, poses worrisome long-term effects. The Center for Biological Diversity is concerned that the water may contain chemicals from pharmaceuticals and other hard-to-trace sources, which in the long-term could impact the ecosystems, and therefore harm others that weren’t previously contaminated with chemicals.

At Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, 40 to 50 million gallons of water is supplied to the ski area by the South Tahoe Public Utility District each season. It is estimated that about 84 percent of that water is returned back into the watershed each year. However, Lake Tahoe resorts still face growing water concerns. If warming trends continue, it will be harder for resorts around the basin to manufacture snow, simply due to elevation. Aside from Mammoth Mountain, resorts around the basin sit at relatively lower elevations compared to most resorts in the Rockies. Warmer temperatures may force resorts to snow farm all season by pushing or hauling snow to the base to allow skiers to get to the bottom. This practice is already used by resorts like Squaw Valley in the spring to stay open longer.

Although the sustainability of snowmaking’s future remains questionable, resorts are putting in efforts to make their operations more friendly to the environment in which they operate. At Boreal Mountain, the water that is used comes from their own wells, so no foreign minerals or chemicals are brought into the environment. They have also put many efforts into new snow-guns, which pump out only 12 gallons of water per minute compared to the average snow-gun which will use anywhere from 40 to 100 gallons.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has recognized over 40 resorts across the country who have made outstanding efforts in reducing their carbon footprint as apart of the “Climate Challenge.” Of those resorts, four are included in the Tahoe area, such as Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, Boreal Mountain, and Soda Springs. Other resorts around the basin have also committed to a more sustainable future. “In line with our Commitment to Zero, all of Vail’s Best of Tahoe Resorts – Heavenly Mountain, Northstar California, and Kirkwood Mountain – are focused on the following goals: zero net emissions; zero waste to landfill; and zero net operating impact to forests and habitat, all by 2030,” Frank Papandrea, Sustainability Manager for Heavenly Mountain Resort said. “When it comes to our operations, some of our current efforts include upgrading our snowmaking infrastructure to more efficient equipment which will use up to 80 percent less air.”

As the future seems pointed in the direction of more snowmaking, sustainable energy will be needed to keep the guns blowing. Water maybe be renewable, but our current form of energy use is not.