Editor’s note: This story was originally published Nov. 23, 2021.
“If I catch my guys blowing powder, they’re in trouble,” says Scott Enos, Deer Valley’s snowmaking manager. The reason: Increasing the air pressure in the snowmaking system to blow such light snow dramatically increases electricity use. “That’s really expensive snow.”
Instead, the majority of snow they make is dense, lumpy stuff that creates a base layer capable of withstanding millions of scraping ski turns — and sticking around all season long.
“When you squeeze it into a snowball it should turn gray, shed drops of water and become extremely dense,” Enos says. In other words, it wouldn’t be fair in a snowball fight.
Knowing how to make ideal snow for a resort, and do it without wasting money or water, has taken Enos 30 years to perfect. He’s got a toolbox of three types of snow guns — some more energy efficient, others better at high altitude or in strong wind, or even at making snow at air temperatures above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. His most advanced units are fully automated: With a few clicks of a mouse, Enos and his crew can dial up the desired snow type on a one to 10 scale from base snow to powder.
“I can turn individual guns on or off from my phone driving home from work,” says Enos.
Deer Valley’s arsenal includes some 250 snow guns total, not to mention 40 miles of pipe and 1,150 hydrants. Workers operate the system 24 hours a day whenever temps are cold enough from October to January to coat some 725 acres — or more than one-third of the skiable terrain at the resort — with human-made snow. To make it, Deer Valley uses about 240 million gallons of water a season.
What Enos calls “Deer Valley’s insurance policy” is similar to snowmaking systems paying dividends at 11 of Utah’s 14 ski resorts. Snowbasin has a 350-acre operation while Park City’s blankets 500 acres. These days, a fair percentage of what Utah’s license plates boast is “the greatest snow on Earth” comes from machines.
Most skiers would agree that human-made snow is better than no snow at all, and nearly everyone would agree that Utah’s ski industry provides cultural and health benefits that are at least as important as the billions of dollars in spending it provides the state. However, snowmaking comes with considerable costs in terms of water and electricity use. In light of the intertwined threats of climate change and drought, is it a practice Utah (and other Western states) can afford?
Utah resort managers know snowmaking is a lifeline, says Patrick Belmont, professor of watershed sciences at Utah State University and one of the authors of a recent study of the effects of climate change on Utah’s ski industry.
“They know that the quality of their famously light snow is decreasing,” he says of the nine resort representatives the researchers interviewed for their August paper in the journal Mountain Research and Development. “They also realize that guests aren’t that picky. What’s most important to them is that there’s snow on the ground.”
The numbers bear this out. The 2017-18 Utah ski season logged some of the lowest snow totals in 74 years, but ski visits were down just 10% from the year before. According to Ski Utah, the resorts’ marketing collective, the season still generated $1.32 billion in total skier and snowboarder spending in the state. Despite the drought, it was the Utah ski industry’s second most lucrative year, thanks, undoubtedly, to snowmaking.
The first ski resort in the world to use human-made snow was Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, in Liberty, New York, in 1952. Park City started experimenting with snowmaking in 1963, its first year of operation. When Deer Valley opened in 1981, it had already installed a snowmaking system.
Today, Utah’s reliance on snowmaking parallels the rest of the industry. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 91% of American ski areas use snowmaking, and resorts have increased their snowmaking capacity by 60% over the last two decades. For the current season, eight Utah resorts — including Alta, Eagle Point and Nordic Valley — have announced upgrades to their snowmaking operations, and Powder Mountain is working on acquiring water rights to implement one.
Water to fuel Utah’s snowmaking systems comes from a variety of sources. Snowbasin’s comes from wells it’s drilled into an aquifer. Park City’s is siphoned from the Spiro Tunnel mine shaft, built in 1916 and extending for three miles beneath the ski slopes. Alta’s, similarly, comes from the Wasatch Drain Tunnel, built in 1912 to drain groundwater from the silver and copper mines in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
How much water they are allowed to use is regulated by the state Division of Water Rights, or by whoever sells the resorts their water. Salt Lake City Public Utilities, which famously owns nearly every drop of water in both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, could theoretically cancel Alta’s snowmaking contract at any time. It’s almost inconceivable that it ever would, though, because ski resorts are so central to the city’s economy and identity.
Additionally, most resorts have reservoirs to collect their own spring runoff, recycling it for the following winter. In fact, ski resorts view snowmaking as a nonconsumptive use of water. It is pulled from the watershed at a time when it isn’t used for agriculture and then spread on the ground when most plants are dormant. It is stored there for the winter, they say, and then melts back into the watershed it originated from along with the natural snowfall. (In Utah’s intensely litigated water allocations, the latter is an important point. Deer Valley, for example, has struck an agreement to purchase water derived from both the Weber and Provo rivers, as runoff from the resort’s snowmaking flows to both watersheds.)
“Snowmaking is like having a dam, but without the environmental consequences,” Robin Smith, president of SnowConsult, a Colorado-based snowmaking consulting business, says.
That isn’t strictly true, say others, pointing out that snowmaking incurs evaporation and sublimation of water — anywhere from 15% to 40%, according to a three-year study published in 2018 by the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.
Even though water lost to snowmaking in the state is undoubtedly less than the water lost to overwatered lawns in the Utah summer heat, “you can’t say that snowmaking is a nonconsumptive use of water,” says Emily E. Lewis, an attorney specializing in Utah water usage at Salt Lake City firm Clyde Snow.
The bigger long-term issue for snowmaking may be the rise in temperatures associated with climate change. A University of Utah study indicated that around the world, high-elevation locations are warming more quickly than those at lower elevations.
Since 1980, at all 14 Utah ski resorts, the average low temperature has increased by around 4.7 to 12.1 degrees Fahrenheit, which means more days when precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, and fewer days when snow can be made. Several of the resort managers interviewed reported that snow accumulation is occurring later and later in the fall, which means the traditional start date of Thanksgiving and the peak visitation of Christmas are increasingly in jeopardy.
Furthermore, the study’s climate projections predict that by 2100, minimum temperatures are expected to rise by up to 10 degrees between December and March in northern Utah.
“When we started this work, I expected snowmaking to be an important adaptation strategy that would significantly extend the viability of ski resorts,” Belmont says. “Now, I realize it’s making things worse.”
The viability of that lucrative but increasingly marginal Thanksgiving-to-Christmas window is paramount for an industry that injects $20 billion annually into the U.S. economy, but that short-term profit could bring significant losses down the line.
Snowmaking burns huge amounts of electricity — to run the fans, to pump the water, to pressurize it, and in some systems, to precool it. According to SnowConsult’s Smith, snowmaking systems tend to be the largest con- sumer of electricity at any given resort.
Many Utah resorts are making strides to run their snowmaking with renewable energy. Alta has installed solar panels on-site and installed micro-hydro systems. Snowbird built a new natural gas power plant this year that reduces the resort’s dependence on coal-generated power, and whose heat byproduct warms a majority of its lodging facilities. Brighton announced that it was reducing its emissions by 18% this year thanks to the purchase of renewable energy credits. The resort pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.
Park City and Deer Valley have made the biggest commitments to date. Both have invested in an 80-megawatt solar farm west of Salt Lake City that will supply 100% of their energy needs by 2023. Such efforts are a start, says Belmont, but if the temps aren’t low enough to make snow, it’s all for naught.
As for water use, water attorney Lewis says that the increased snowmaking inevitably does impact the state’s increasingly scarce water resources. “How many straws can dip into the same glass?” she asks.
Ultimately, the public sets the priorities for our water allocation, and it is becoming increasingly clear that we aren’t going to have enough water to do everything we want to do. Right now, she says, some 70 to 80% of water in Utah is used by agriculture. “Is that a better use than making snow for skiing or watering lawns? That’s a decision society needs to make. That’s without even mentioning the ecological needs of the natural environment. The future of Utah’s water is going to be a bunch of controversial trade-offs — do we want to use it to support people flying in from New Jersey to go snowboarding, or do we want it to grow marginal alfalfa in Price?”
In the meantime, Enos, Deer Valley’s snowmaker, does what he can to reduce electricity use while still creating a quality ski experience for the resort’s guests.
He aerates his snowmaking storage ponds in early fall, which reduces the energy needed to cool water when snowmaking starts. He uses Snomax, a bacterial additive that helps water crystalize into snow at warmer temperatures and produces a higher volume of snow from the same amount of water, which also reduces the machines’ run time. He also periodically replaces older snow guns with more energy-efficient automated units. Those have their disadvantages, too, though.
Like with allocating Utah’s dwindling water resources, there are trade-offs — in the short and likely long term. While skiers and economists alike are thankful now for the state’s snow-making systems, ultimately, that snow might prove too expensive in more ways than one.