DENVER (AP) – 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 preeminent 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 to invest 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 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.
Oftentimes, 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. However, it’s more of a challenge in the early winter, when the state’s water plumbing system goes dormant.
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 users tightened their belts even more.
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 impact 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.”