Ski area arms race dirties the water

by Allen Best

Colorado critics say snowmaking should not be allowed




Although Arapahoe Basin was the fourth busiest ski resort in Colorado in 1961, it's been surpassed by ski areas that didn't exist then. To regain a competitive advantage, managers want some new technology: machines that turn water from the Snake River into snow.


Environmentalists sympathize with A-Basin's position as a mid-sized fish surrounded by sharks. But they don't like its proposed solution.


"We would have been derelict in our duties as environmental watchdogs to let this go, because it's a violation of the Clean Water Act," says Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild.


To that end, Smith's group filed suit to overturn Forest Service approval of snowmaking on 125 acres at Arapahoe Basin (HCN, 3/27/00: Greens call snowmaking a snow job). On Nov. 30, however, a U.S. District Court judge in Denver dismissed the suit, saying that water-quality standards apply only to discharges of pollution, not water withdrawals.


Critics see snowmaking as part of a more fundamental issue: Public lands, they charge, are being exploited in a ski-area arms race, as resorts attempt to bring more ski terrain and snowmaking to a market that has been stuck nationally at around 50 million skiers since 1979.


Smith and other activists say the Forest Service looks at projects in isolation, instead of at the bigger picture: an industry fighting for a limited pool of skiers.


The Forest Service responds that analysis of forest plans at 15- to 20-year intervals on a forest-by-forest basis has been adequate. Furthermore, says Ken Karkula, Washington, D.C.-based special-use program manager, federal law limits how far the agency can extend its review of cumulative effects.


But environmentalists in Colorado say the agency has been allowing expansion by mega-resorts such as Vail at the expense of Arapahoe Basin and smaller resorts.


"What gets me fired up is corporate dominance of the public lands. And that's just not right," says Jeff Parsons of Colorado Wild.

Low snow, high anxiety

Most ski areas in the West resisted snowmaking until drought struck hard. In Colorado, the defining winter came in 1976.


Christmas passed with just a few inches, and the resort at Steamboat Springs gave up hope in February, closing down altogether.


"It was pretty bleak," remembers Bob Kuusinen, now vice president for mountain operations at Steamboat. The resort declined a snowmaking investment, and got smacked hard again in 1980-81.


Says Kuusinen: "We all got religion after two droughts in four years." Now, coming off two more slow starts, all but three of Colorado's ski resorts boast of their snowmaking capacity.


But opening regularly at Christmas, let alone Thanksgiving, comes at a price. Aspen Skiing Co., for example, opens two of its four resorts by Thanksgiving, consuming enough electricity for snowmaking to contribute 6,909 tons of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.


Even in Aspen, which recorded one of Colorado's highest turnouts for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, most people want guaranteed snow.


"If we don't make snow," says Auden Schendler, the Aspen Skiing Co.'s director of environmental affairs, "everyone wants to know why."


Environmentalists also worry about how snowmaking affects fish and other aquatic life. Most ski areas are located at headwaters, where streams run small, and the streams run smallest late in the year - precisely when snowmaking is needed and aquatic life is at greatest risk.


To buffer these impacts, some ski areas create upstream reservoirs. Vail, for example, has invested $7 million in headwater reservoirs so that water trapped during spring can be released late in the year. To build capacity, Vail also wants to build a 120 million-gallon reservoir on the mountain, at an elevation of 11,000 feet.


Meanwhile, A-Basin officials hope that engineered snow will allow them to open as early as October and to remain open until August. The resort already stays open until July 4.


The only high hurdle left is a wetlands-disturbance permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and possible appeal by environmentalists of the federal judge's go-ahead.


Allen Best writes from Vail and the Denver area.

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