Spar gulch

Snowmaking guns on Spar Gulch are pictured.

The recent completion of infrastructure to allow top-to-bottom snowmaking on Aspen Mountain and the addition of more acres of snowmaking coverage for Snowmass have been lauded as welcome improvements for the 2020-21 season.

But if the drought persists could Aspen Skiing Co.’s investment this year be for naught or at least not used to its full capacity?

“Snowmaking is discretionary and can be stopped at any time,” Jeff Hanle, vice president communications for Aspen Skiing Co., said Thursday, in a discussion about snowmaking and the drought.

“We will work within our existing agreements and in coordination with our partners from the city of Aspen and Snowmass Water and Sanitation,” Hanle said.

Spokespersons from the city of Aspen’s engineering department and Snowmass Water and Sanitation said this week they continue to closely monitor streamflows and have regular dialogue with Aspen Skiing Co.

Moisture this fall will help determine how much water is available for snowmaking in Snowmass, said Dean Wieser, who has worked for the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District since 1982.

Snowmass snowmaking received a boost this year, with 28 new acres of coverage, handled by about 30 guns, in the vicinity of the Lunkerville and Lodgepole trails. This mountain enhancement, with a $1.6 million price tag, will allow repeat trips on the Alpine Springs lift.

Complementary seasons

Over the summer, SkiCo completed a $4 million snowmaking upgrade to Aspen Mountain that included a pump house, storage pond, snowmaking guns, pipes and other infrastructure.

The 7,700 feet of new pipe covering about 17 acres connects the top third of the mountain to the existing system near Bonnie’s restaurant, where it previously had terminated.

The source for Aspen Mountain snowmaking is the city of Aspen’s treated water, plus up to 6 million gallons of storage that’s normally filled from the Loushin pond east of Walsh’s run, according to Hanle.

“This may change this year due to late construction and dry conditions,” he said.

Tyler Christoff, director of utilities for the city of Aspen, confirmed the water agreement with Aspen Skiing Co. and said it is both complex and long-standing.

The ski area’s needs and the highest demand by city of Aspen users for potable water are on opposite ends of the calendar, Christoff said.

“SkiCo typically ramps up as the community’s demand ramps down.”

From Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, Aspen Mountain snowmakers can draw up to 1,500 gallons per minute for this purpose, Christoff said. From Dec. 21-Jan. 2, the maximum draw is 1,000 gallons a minute.

“In a big push, they could pull a few million gallons in a 24-hour period,” he said.

By comparison, Christoff said on Aug. 19, the city of Aspen was on track to use about 6-7 million gallons of water. He said “around 70-75 percent of our annual water use is irrigation,” which he called “a massive amount of water.”

SkiCo pays in the ballpark of “around six bucks per thousand gallons,” Christoff said. The rates are audited and the payments for 2019 “are just being determined now.”

Aspen Mountain’s water storage in the pond near the bottom of the Gent’s Ridge chair was also enhanced this summer as part of the overall snowmaking project.

Aspen Highlands’ snowmaking needs are filled by untreated city of Aspen water. Buttermilk water is sourced from the Stapleton Ditch that is fed by Maroon Creek and is not on the city’s system, said Christoff. Neither Highlands nor Buttermilk have snowmaking storage capacity.

Above the town of Snowmass Village, Ziegler pond was in the midst of being excavated for water storage when a backhoe driver in Oct. 2010 uncovered a Columbian mammoth bone, the first of thousands of bones, plant material and other remnants of ice-age life at high altitude that were removed from the ground.

Before the Ziegler reservoir and dam, water for Snowmass snowmaking was drawn through a direct diversion from Snowmass Creek, Wieser said.

Snowmass Ski Area has water storage at Rayburn’s pond on the east side of the ski area near the top of the Elk Camp Gondola and in another pond below the Sheer Bliss chairlift.

Measurements taken of Snowmass Creek in October will inform a table that determines a range of “streamflow triggers,” Wieser said. That’s tied to an agreement with Snowmass Creek area residents, SkiCo, Snowmass Water and Sanitation District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which established limits on the available water and to protect the creek’s aquatic environment.

Minimum streamflow levels fluctuate annually. Wieser said last year between Nov. 1-14, Snowmass Creek’s minimum was 10 cubic feet per second. It moved up and down in the following weeks but did not drop below 8 cfs.

Looking ahead, he said a spate of wet fall weather — “two to three days of rain can greatly influence that measurement” — will make a difference in the tabulation.

SkiCo typically begins its snowmaking efforts on Nov. 1, “when we have temperatures to operate efficiently. We aim to finish snowmaking before the holidays whenever possible,” Hanle said.

If the drought worsens, some hard choices may need to be considered.

“We would have a conversation of sorts with our general customer base and SkiCo.” Christoff said, speaking of a hypothetical situation.

“We’re a ski town, a ski community. It’s an important aspect of who we are. We’ve had honest discussions about that resource, what it means if there’s not enough. I’ve had no pushback from SkiCo about conservation efforts,” he said.

Currently, Aspen is in a Stage 1 water shortage, he said, with voluntary restrictions for residential customers and a goal to reduce water usage of around 10 percent. Stepping up to Stage 2 “is certainly a possibility,” Christoff said.

Hanle said Aspen Skiing Co. will continue to work with its community partners.

“We have priorities and will make decisions that will best serve the community, our guests and protect the health of the area watersheds.”

According to Christoff, “I hope we don’t get to a critical decision point. If so, I think we’ll be prepared.”

Madeleine Osberger is interim editor of the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at madski@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @Madski99