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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Let it Snow

By Erin McIntyre

A tiny ski area that operated for just one season 50 years ago introduced snowmaking technology to Colorado, blazing the trail for a tool to fake out Mother Nature and provide economic stability for a $1.5 billion industry.

Magic Mountain Ski Area, west of Golden, opened in 1958 and closed in 1959, says ski historian Pat Pfeiffer. Then-new Ski Broadmoor, near Colorado Springs, bought some of Magic Mountain's used equipment.
‘Ski Broadmoor was the area that all other ski areas kept a close eye on to see how the new technology worked and if it was profitable,’ says Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer, who is also a board member of the Colorado Ski Museum, vividly remembers her first experience with snowmaking in 1960. She and her husband were so excited about Ski Broadmoor opening that they planned a nocturnal ski party on the slopes.

After a few good runs, they got back on the lift and ‘they turned the snow machine on and it spewed out water, drenching all of us who were riding the lift,’ says Pfeiffer. ‘You might say that put a damper on the ski party.’

The soaked skiers spent the rest of the adventure inside the warming house trying to dry out, and finally left early.

‘Never has a hot buttered rum hit the spot more!’ says Pfeiffer, who is now in her late 70s.

The Broadmoor worked out its problems with the snowmaking equipment and went on to serve skiers for 30 years. Today, the majority of ski areas in Colorado use snowmaking regularly. Even the highest areas, such as Loveland Ski Area at 13,010 feet above sea level, uses snowmaking, and die-hard powder fans know it's typically the first to open. The ski area's management is so confident snow enthusiasts will be satisfied with the powder on its slopes—an annual average of 400 inches—it offers a full refund on lift tickets if skiers aren't happy with the conditions and return their tickets by 10 a.m.

‘We can't remember the last time someone took us up on that,’ writes Kathryn Johnson, Loveland Ski Area marketing manager, in an e-mail interview. ‘Frankly, it's something we've kinda phased out just because the snow conditions are always quite adequate.’

But even Loveland needs a little help now and then from snowmaking technology to make sure it can uphold that guarantee. It has the ability to make snow on 160 acres and takes advantage of that most years, says Johnson.

According to Colorado Ski Country USA, a state ski trade association, only three of its 25 member resorts in Colorado do not make snow today: Monarch, Ski Cooper and Silverton.

‘Snowmaking is used in Colorado to build a good early-season snow base and to help provide high-quality opening day and early season conditions in the event Mother Nature is a bit stingy,’ explains Molly Cuffe, Colorado Ski Country USA spokeswoman, in an e-mail interview. Yet, ‘only 16 percent of Colorado's ski-able terrain is covered by way of snowmaking capability.’

To make snow, three things are necessary: A relative humidity of at least 100 percent, air temperatures equal to or below freezing, and particles called ice nuclei.

Snow cannons shoot water into the freezing air, aspirating it. Particles allow ice to form as the compressed air expands and cools through a process called adiabatic cooling, says Mark Williams, a fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a University of Colorado geography professor.

‘It's just the opposite of when you're pumping up a bike tire, the pump gets hot because you're compressing the air. Here, it's expanding and it's cooling off,’ says Williams.

The result is a denser, wetter snow than Mother Nature's. While natural snow is fluffier, made of mostly air, artificial snow is heavier and is mostly ice.

For example, good, natural champagne powder is about 95 percent air and 5 percent ice, says Williams. Artificial snow is only 30 to 40 percent air, which makes it useful for covering up rocks and tree branches.

The pressure of warming climates, Mother Nature's unpredictability and customer demands have made snowmaking a near-necessity for most resorts.

‘There's a really high year-to-year variability in the magnitude of snow,’ says Williams. ‘And snowmaking reduces the uncertainty of the skiing business.’

Williams knows how to get excited about really good snow, after running a ski lodge in the Sierra Nevada mountains for seven years. He said the ability to create a good base with artificial snow allows resorts to have a more certain schedule and assure skiers and snowboarders that the runs will open by Thanksgiving, the target opening date for most Colorado resorts.

Snowmaking also has evened out the number of skiers across the ski season, meaning there's less of a push for the slopes immediately after a storm.

‘In general, skier days at resorts are not correlated with good snow anymore,’ says Williams. ‘Places like Vail, their market is not based on day-use. Their market is from people coming from Florida, from Europe. People who are really their cash cows are booking their trips in advance.’

Statewide, 60 percent of the skiers and snowboarders on Colorado's slopes are from outside the state, according to Colorado Ski Country USA. Either way, snowmaking helps resorts get a jump start on building a good base at the beginning of the season so they can open.

‘The time period of skiing when ski areas make their money is not in sync with nature,’ says Williams.
But for some smaller resorts like Powderhorn Resort on Grand Mesa, 45 minutes away from Grand Junction, snowmaking serves a different function. About 75 percent of its business comes from within 60 miles, says Kathy Dirks, Powderhorn spokeswoman.

‘Snowmaking may get us open a little earlier, but primarily snowmaking allows us to put down a very dense base at the bottom of the mountain,’ writes Dirks in an e-mail interview. ‘When the weather warms in the spring, that dense base allows us to keep our access to the lifts and base area until we close.’

Powderhorn covers 35 acres with its snowmaking and uses it mainly to increase the snow base from mid-November through mid-January. The maximum amount of water it uses, with eight snow guns going at the same time, is 575 gallons per minute. After the season is over, the snow melts and eventually drains to streams supplying downstream cities or and ranchers in the Plateau Valley and along the Colorado River.

‘We like to think of our slopes and snowmaking as a storage area for their summer water,’ says Dirks.
Snowmaking does require a water right. And ski resorts have invested thousands of dollars obtaining these rights, as well as making sure water will be available when they need it.

Vail Resorts, for example, helped construct Black Lakes, a pair of now twice-expanded reservoirs located along Interstate 70 at Vail Pass. Water from these high-altitude reservoirs can now be metered into Gore Creek to supplement low flows caused by snowmaking, or to supply downstream calls for water from senior diverters. It's an elaborate system, taking water diverted from the stream and pumping it back some three miles up Gore Creek to the location of Vail's snowmaking intake.

So who invented this technology to give Mother Nature a boost?

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ said Williams. He's heard the different versions of snowmaking's invention. According to information from the Colorado Ski Museum, snowmaking was developed in March 1950 by Art Hunt, Wayne Pierce and Dave Ritchey of TEY Manufacturing Corp in Milford, Conn. But other materials from the Broadmoor Hotel indicate that an engineer with a small agricultural equipment firm may have discovered snowmaking in the same year, when he was working on a way to protect citrus crops from early frost.

‘I'm sure it was some guy who was making five bucks an hour and came up with the idea,’ Williams says, laughing. ‘Some seasonal ski bum.’

Williams predicts that in the next 50 to 100 years, snowmaking will become more popular at resorts in lower elevations as climate variations bring less snow.

‘Lower areas will receive less snow, and not until later in the year,’ he says. ‘Areas like Aspen, Keystone will have to start making more snow.

‘The ski areas are concerned about that and…they're hedging their bets. They're trying to gobble water rights up for that.’

While ski resorts may have the money to invest in water rights, some streams are already over-appropriated. Williams predicts that attempts to take water from high-mountain streams that are at their minimum flows will be very controversial.

‘The problem is going to be having enough water to make snow,’ says Williams. ‘You end up with questions like, 'If you take that water and make snow instead of leaving that water in the stream, are you losing more to evapotranspiration?' Nobody really knows.’

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