Snowmaking crucial to area ski resorts

Snow guns blow fresh man-made powder onto a run at Telluride Ski Resort in this photo from last year. Colorado resorts rely on early season snowmaking to carry them over until natural snow blankets the slopes.

Winter no longer begins 
Dec. 21. It starts with the first roar from a snow gun on Colorado’s ski slopes.

Colorado ski resorts have long relied on early season snowmaking to sate the appetites of skiers and riders eager to get that first run of the season.

This year, though, the main thread of conversation in outdoor sports has been the drought-caused lack of water across the West.

Although some people question the wisdom of using millions of gallons of water to make artificial snow, no ski resort yet has said water, or the shortage of, is a factor in any decisions about making snow.

One of the benefits of snowmaking is its water-storage capability, acting as a frozen reservoir for summer discharge into streams and aquifers.

“I’ve seen reports that say at least 80 percent of the water used in snowmaking goes back to the streams later in the summer as runoff,” said Troy Hawks of the National Ski Areas Association.

But water is key to making snow, whether it’s by man or nature.

Advocates of global climate change warn of changes in where and how often winter storms hit Colorado, and resorts that already cast anxious looks at early winter skies may have even more to worry about if the frequency or severity of storms change.

Earlier this year, it was reported Powderhorn Mountain Resort was set to purchase up to 140 acre-feet of water per year for 10 years from the city of Grand Junction. An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons.

The resort’s snowmaking would expand from 21 acres to 141 acres.

The water would come from one of the city’s reservoirs on Grand Mesa. Powderhorn would pipe the water to the top of the resort, where gravity would help the efficacy of the resort’s snowmaking facilities.

Two resorts already are making snow in preparation for the coming season.

Copper Mountain Resort, which hosts the U.S. Ski Team at Copper’s Speed Center, covers about 350 acres of terrain with man-made snow, resort spokesperson Austyn Williams said.

The water, approximately 300 acre-feet per year, comes from nearby Ten Mile and West Ten Mile creeks.

“There is always concern (about the availability of water), but we have a reliable source and are confident heading into the season,” Williams said.

Loveland fired up its snow guns Oct. 4, anticipating an October opening. The resort expects to cover more than a mile of trail, offering about 1,000 vertical feet of skiing and riding for opening day.

Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, have invested heavily in snowmaking since purchasing the area in 2004.

“Being from back east, we have always seen a benefit to maintaining the highest snow quality, regardless of what Mother Nature brings or doesn’t bring,” area spokeswoman Erica Reiter said. “Since 2004, we have spent $2.9 million in snowmaking capital improvements, and this year we are spending about $175,000 to replace old snowmaking pipes that service the East River area.”

Another $250,000 is going for a new snow-grooming machine, Reiter said.

The area, anticipating a 
Nov. 21 opening, covers 297 acres with man-made snow and gets its water from the East River.

Last Friday the East River was flowing at 47 cubic feet per second, less than half of its long-term median flow of 101 cfs for that date.

The resort carefully monitors East River flows, Reiter said.

“We are constantly monitoring the water flow in the East river, and right now we still have access to all of our water rights,” she said.


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