SNOWMASS VILLAGE - Aspen Skiing Co. has signed an agreement with the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District to purchase rights to a portion of the water in Ziegler Reservoir to use for snowmaking on the Snowmass ski area.
Previously, Skico pumped water from Snowmass Creek to make snow and could draw from the creek only until Dec. 31. The $3.25 million deal will allow Skico to make snow past that date as well as decrease the impact to the creek.
"This is what we've been pushing for in the past," said Kit Hamby, Water and Sanitation District manager. "The ski company has operated using direct flows from Snowmass Creek. (It would) drop that creek 5 or 6 (cubic feet per second)."
In the early winter, when Skico usually makes snow, the creek is at its lowest, so that would mean about half the flow.
"We don't want to impact the stream, as well," Hamby said.
Water is stored in Ziegler through a gravity feed from East Snowmass Creek. Skico can access the water at any time during the ski season as long as it was stored as of Dec. 31.
"Essentially you're taking water out of the reservoir that's stored during runoff and using it when the creek would be low," Hamby said.
Also, snowmaking is most necessary during the driest times of year, and lower temperatures are more optimal for snowmaking because they make the snow lighter and allow for better coverage with less water.
"If it's cold for 12 hours, you need a lot of water (for snowmaking)," said Auden Schendler, Skico's director of community and environmental responsibility. "You need to be able to just flow and go."
Schendler said the agreement has multiple benefits. It's helping the company achieve an environmental goal of decreasing the impact to the creek. Drawing water from the reservoir also will require less pumping, so it would consume less energy to transport the water.
"So you're saving energy and water, coupled with ecological impacts, and then you add these operational benefits," Schendler said. "This allows us a kind of business certainty."
Signing this agreement during the drought also has been timely for Skico.
"It's possible the creek could be too low in the fall to make snow," Schendler said. "This has the potential to allow us to open or not this winter."
Hamby said the purchase doesn't necessarily guarantee water for Skico. In cases of emergency, such as a wildfire, the district might need to use the reservoir.
"(The reservoir) really is sort of an insurance for the community," Hamby said. "A lot of people in the state of Colorado are saying this is possibly the worst drought in 100 years. It's really timely to have it constructed."
Chelsea Brundige, a member of the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus, said she hadn't seen the details of the agreement as of July 23 but that her impression was that it represented a "significant benefit" to Snowmass Creek. The caucus has been working "for years and years to find ways to protect the creek at those very low times," Brundige said.
Drawing water from the creek for snowmaking requires turning the pumps on when the conditions and time are right and off at other times. That creates rapid changes in flow, Brundige said.
If the agreement is "a way to smooth out operations and create less extremes in the creek," then it's a step in the right direction, Brundige said.
The district will use the money from the purchase to pay back Colorado Water Conservation loans used to buy and construct Ziegler Reservoir.