Is there enough water for snowmaking? |

Is there enough water for snowmaking?

Brent Gardner-SmithAspen Times Staff Writer

Anyone concerned about how much water will be available this fall for snowmaking at the Snowmass Ski Area can watch for themselves on the Internet.Three different Web sites provide an insight into how much water is in Snowmass Creek at any given time and what may be available this fall for early season snowmaking operations at the valley’s biggest ski area.The Aspen Skiing Co.’s snowmaking operation at Snowmass gets its water from the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, which draws it from Snowmass Creek.The Skico, Water and San, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board have all agreed on a program to limit the amount of water that can be used for snowmaking, if necessary, so as to protect the aquatic environment in Snowmass Creek “to a reasonable degree.”With water levels in streams and rivers in Colorado at record lows not seen since 1977, the issue of whether there will be enough water for snowmaking has never been more acute than it is likely to be this October, November and December.”This is the first time since 1994 there has been widespread potential conflict between the economic interest of resort communities and the implementation of the state law,” said Harris Sherman, an attorney with Arnold & Porter in Denver who has worked on minimum stream-flow issues at a variety of ski resorts. “We know the stream flows are going to be quite low.”And if Snowmass Creek ever dips below 7 cubic feet of water per second this fall and early winter, no more water can be taken out of the creek for snowmaking. On Sunday, the stream was running at 30 cfs, but is expected to continue to drop through the end of the year.And as fall approaches, interested parties can see for themselves how much water is in the creek, what the minimum stream flow is on any given week, and what is actually happening in the stream at the point where the water is taken out and pumped up to the ski area.Perhaps the logical place to start is at the Web site of Water and San, which is there, look on the left-hand menu and click on “View Snowmass Creek.”What will come up is a color photo of the diversion structure on Snowmass Creek. As of yesterday, the photo was dated July 31, 2002, but presumably the photo will be updated as the season goes along.The diversion structure on the creek is located just downstream of the base of the Campground lift on the western edge of the ski area.This is where the water meets the regulations, as it were, as well as where the water is diverted into the square culvert on the left-hand edge of the photo.Once the water is taken out of the stream, it is pumped up the hill to Water and San’s facility under the Fanny Hill lift, where the fake alligator pond is, and then fed into the Skico’s snowmaking system.The photo tends to make the diversion structure look smaller than it is. The wall the water is cascading over is about six inches thick and the opening where the water flows over is about 15 feet wide, according to George Wear, a hydrographer who measures water flows for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.The next stop on your virtual tour of Snowmass Creek should be to the Division’s Web site, which shows how much water is in streams and rivers around the state.The Web site is That will take you to a page called “Colorado Streamflow Data Retrieval.” Once there, scroll down the list to “Snowmass Creek” and click the “Retrieve Data” button.That will bring up a graph showing the hourly average of flows in the creek. And if you click on the “Retrieve self-timed tabular data” bullet, it will bring up a chart showing how much water has been flowing past the diversion structure every 15 minutes for the past three days.So, that’s how you can tell how much water is in the stream. But, how do you tell how much water is available for snowmaking? How low does the stream have to get before there is no water for snowmaking?On to another Web site, this one run by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which sets minimum stream flows around the state.In the case of Snowmass Creek, the state has worked out a “stair-step” minimum depending on whether it is a dry or wet year and what the date is.To understand this, go to Then, click on the “Stream and Lake Protection” button on the left-hand side of the page. Once you’re on that page, click on “Instream Flow and Natural Lake Water Rights Database,” which is in red type.That will bring up a search form labeled “Instream Flow Information.” Type in “Snowmass Creek” in the “Stream Name,” leave the other fields alone, and click “go” next to Stream Name.That will bring up five cases pertaining to Snowmass Creek.Click on the second down on the list: 5-76W2943A. That will bring you to something labeled “CWCB Stream Cases.”On that page you will see a detailed “Instream Flow Recommendation” for Snowmass Creek which may determine whether Fanny Hill is open for skiing this Thanksgiving or not.The way the recommendation works is that the stream is closely monitored each October from the 11th to the 15th. Then it is determined what “Percentile Water Year” we’re having. This year is almost certain to be the driest percentile, “Less than 10th%,” with flows under 19 cfs. If that’s the case, it will be the first time it’s been given that designation since this specific flow program for Snowmass Creek was adopted in 1994.If the lowest percentile is adopted, it means that from Oct. 16 to Oct. 21, the minimum stream flow for the creek is 9 cfs.Then, from Oct. 22 to Oct. 31, it drops to 8 cfs. And then, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, the most critical period for making snow, it drops to 7 cfs.With all that as background, almost anyone can check this fall to see how much water may available for snowmaking.Under the lowest percentile regime, if, say, on Oct. 29, the DWR’s Web site shows there is 10 cfs of water in Snowmass Creek, then there is 2 cfs of water for snowmaking. But if it shows 8 cfs, no more water can be taken out of the stream for snowmaking.One other factor that comes into play, however, is the Skico’s new four million-gallon storage pond under construction near the base of the Sheer Bliss lift.That may allow the Skico to keep making snow for a night or two even if the stream is down to a minimum level.It’s likely there will be many eyes on Snowmass Creek this fall, and the difference between water for snowmaking and water for the stream environment is expected to be small.But thanks to the Internet, we can all follow along.

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