Colorado ski industry virtually protected from drought

Beaver Creek snowmakers fire up the guns for training in Beaver Creek, Colo. in this Oct. 12, 2018, photo. Ski resorts have spent many decades amassing water rights and water storage and continuously upgrading snowmaking systems to make the state's vibrant, multibillion-dollar resort industry virtually immune to drought - so long as this winter, farmers and ranchers have repeatedly said over the summer, is wetter than last winter and those critical reservoirs are filled to brimming come spring. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP, File)

Denver • Reservoirs have turned to dust. Farmers have fallow fields.

But don't expect the skiing to languish.

Ski resorts have spent many decades amassing water rights and water storage and continuously upgrading snowmaking systems to make the state's vibrant, multibillion-dollar resort industry virtually immune to drought — so long as this winter, farmers and ranchers have repeatedly said over the summer, is wetter than last winter and those critical reservoirs are filled to brimming come spring.

“I think everybody is fine right now. I think everyone is going into the season in good shape,” said Glenn Porzak, the pre-eminent water lawyer who has worked with resorts for more than 30 years to corral water rights and develop storage.

It was the devastating seasons of 1976-77 and 1980-81 that spurred the state’s resorts to do more than pray for snow. Those were the seasons when Breckenridge trucked in chunks of ice chiseled from St. Mary’s Glacier and when Steamboat deployed locals to shovel snow onto bald runs.

In the aftermath of those lean seasons, resorts started investing in water rights and storage to feed more aggressive snowmaking.

They developed more than just on-the-hill storage ponds. Clinton Gulch Reservoir, a former mining impound south of Copper Mountain that sold to ski areas and municipalities in 1992, holds 4,500 acre feet. The 3,300-acre-foot Eagle Park Reservoir, built in the 1960s to hold tailings from the Climax molybdenum mine, was cleaned up for water storage in 1998.

Both reservoirs, which hold resort-owned water for snowmaking, are near full as the snowmaking season begins.

“Resorts have ample storage,” said Porzak, speaking of the Eagle, Summit and Grand county ski areas that use Clinton Gulch and Eagle Park water to replenish any upstream water diverted for snowmaking.

And that storage shifts from reservoir to ski slopes in the coming months. That’s the thing about snowmaking — 80 percent to 90 percent of the water that makes snow returns to rivers and streams after it has served skiers.

“I’m not too worried about snowmaking because the water is used to make snow — that becomes our natural water-storage system,” said Liza Mitchell, who compiles weekly river and snowpack reports for the Roaring Fork Conservancy, which protects the watershed below five ski areas in the Roaring Fork Valley. “A lot of that water infiltrating the ground recharges groundwater supplies or runs off into the river. As a river-focused organization, we see snowmaking as not necessarily a bad use of water.”

There is a difference between summer water rights and winter water rights. Resorts pull water when demand ebbs.

“We are a pretty efficient seasonal reservoir,” said Sam Williams, the head of mountain operations at Purgatory, a ski area outside Durango. “People should be happy that ski resorts have gone out and secured water rights in the winter instead of letting all that water flow downstream. We store that water and deliver it back to ranchers and farmers and municipalities in the spring when everyone really needs it.”

But, often, resorts remove water from one creek for snowmaking and repay the water farther downstream. And they pull that water from streams in the late fall, when those streams are nearing their annual low point for flows. This fall, as drought ravages the state for another season, those low points have been historic.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Instream Flow Program was created in 1973 to maintain minimum streamflows to protect natural environments. The board and the Colorado Water Trust buy water rights to maintain natural flows to protect riparian habitats.

But Colorado has a horse-trader-like water market, where a user can pull from one area and deposit in another. That may work in the spring, when rivers are rushing. It’s more of a challenge in the early winter, when the state’s water plumbing system goes dormant.

Linda Bassi is the chief of stream and lake protection for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. She watches flow gauges below resorts’ snowmaking diversions to make sure minimum flows protecting fish and habitat are maintained. When a resort’s flow dips below required levels, she calls that resort and asks for adjustments. The board also issues administrative calls on their priority rights “to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.”

So far this year the board has issued 12 administrative calls on 11 stretches of rivers and creeks between July 5 and Sept. 19. That’s the highest number of annual administrative calls since 2010.

“Water has been super scarce this year, and there are a lot of competing demands. It’s been a really tough year,” said Bassi, noting that, hopefully, the colder weather will drop temperatures in the state’s warming waterways, which will help fish populations. “I am not aware of any additional actions that the state is taking. I think we are coming into some relief with the moisture now.”

Ski resorts have long worked with the state to protect streams, she said.

“I think they are aware that the people who come to Colorado want to see healthy streams, and it’s not all about one aspect of recreation,” Bassi said. “They have been pretty good about conserving and upgrading their systems.”

In the southern part of the state, the drought and late-to-arrive monsoon season left rivers such as the Animas and Rio Grande trickling at historic lows. Rain and snow this week helped, spiking flows above those lowest-ever levels but still below historic levels for this time of year.

Bruce Whitehead is the executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, which protects water supplies across 11 counties in southwest Colorado. His region has been hit hard by the drought.

In that time, Whitehead can’t recall ski resorts in his district struggling to secure water for snowmaking. Not even in 2002, when waterways withered in the summer and every user tightened their belts even more.

Purgatory typically draws water for snowmaking from nearby Cascade Creek, which was very low at the beginning of October but, thanks to rain over the past two weeks, returned to normal levels.

In the spring of 2017, Purgatory owner James Coleman wrote a letter supporting U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton’s proposed Water Rights Protection Act, which stemmed from a failed attempt by the U.S. Forest Service to require the transfer of private water rights as a condition of permits for ski areas operating on public land.

Coleman wrote that new Forest Service regulations for in-stream flows in Cascade Creek had cut 95 percent of his resort's water supply.

When he applied for the opportunity to develop existing water rights that his resort has held for 30 years in nearby Hermosa Park, he told Tipton that the Forest Service “refused to even process Purgatory’s application.”

“Purgatory believes these actions by the USFS are a blatant attempt by the federal government to extort water rights through the permitting process,” Coleman wrote.

Today, the resort has 20 million gallons of water stored in ponds at ski area. It has upgraded its snowmaking systems to use water more efficiently.

“No contingency plans at this point,” resort spokesman Greg Ralph said. “Counting on nature for some help.”

Like their colleagues across the state, southern Colorado resorts such as Purgatory and Telluride began accruing senior water rights and developing storage decades ago. So, lean years rarely affect their snowmaking operations.

“I’m not really hearing any concern with resorts being able to meet their demands,” Whitehead said. “Hopefully, we have turned that corner now. We’ve had some good rain, clouds now and snow on the high peaks.”

Information from: The Colorado Sun, http://coloradosun.com