Equilibrium & Sustainability

DRIED UP: Threats to Colorado snowpack pose risks far downslope

Ian Sidwell adjusts a hose at the Vail Mountain Resort
AP Photo/Brittany Peterson
Ian Sidwell adjusts a hose at the Vail Mountain Resort in Vail, Colo. Newer snowmaking technology is allowing ski areas to be more efficient with energy and water usage as climate change threatens snowpack levels.

The American West is experiencing its driest period in human history, a megadrought that threatens health, agriculture and entire ways of life. DRIED UP is examining the dire effects of the drought on the states most affected — as well as the solutions Americans are embracing.

BOULDER, COLO. — As unseasonable fall warmth bakes the Rocky Mountain hillsides, veteran snowmaker Tony Wrone has come to terms with the fact that these are no longer the winters of his youth.

“Last year, we had a real hard time because it was so warm in November,” Wrone, who began making snow in Keystone, Colo., in 1996, told The Hill.

“Back then, I think we opened one year there around Oct. 18 or something like that,” said Wrone, a snowmaking manager at the Aspen Snowmass resort. “Now, we seem to be struggling for temps in November.”

Wrone said he is concerned that these conditions may repeat themselves, particularly because meteorologists have once again predicted a hot, dry fall. And what will happen this winter is anyone’s guess.  

As climate change shakes up weather systems worldwide, a region known for its snow has become increasingly uncertain just how much longer its mountainsides will be coated in white. 

Like the rest of the Western U.S., the Rocky Mountains are at the mercy of an unforgiving drought, the region’s worst in more than 1,000 years. At the literal top of the water cycle, the lack of snow threatens both the livelihoods that depend on it and the water needs of those hundreds or even thousands of miles away. 

‘Uncertainty around water planning’

“We can think about the Western snowpack as kind of the ultimate reservoir of water for us in the West,” said Sam Collentine, chief operating officer and a meteorologist at OpenSnow, a snow forecasting service geared toward skiers.

When Wrone starts making snow this season in Aspen — less than 200 miles southeast of the Colorado River’s headwaters — he’ll be contributing to that river system’s core: the snowpack on which 40 million people across seven states depend.

As snowfall has become more unpredictable, so has the amount — and timing — of runoff that feeds the Colorado River each spring.

“The main thing that I’ve seen is uncertainty around water planning for the Colorado River,” Collentine said.

Peak runoff time has typically been around mid-April, but with a changing climate that peak is inching forward by as much as four weeks, according to Collentine.

“There’s no real clear trend in the amount of precipitation that falls across Colorado and the West,” Collentine said.

There are clearer signals, however, that rain will begin replacing snow at elevations below 10,000 feet and that warmer temperatures will bring a quicker spring runoff, he added. 

“We had that consistent snowpack slowly trickle off through the spring and summer months, but as that happens quicker and faster, it just provides challenges for being able to plan,” Collentine said, explaining that water managers need to calculate precisely when they should be taking in and releasing water from reservoirs, particularly as they look ahead to the summer and fall.

Also hastening the snow melt is an increase in dust storms coming in from the desert, Wrone added. Not only does that create a layer of dark snow in the typically pristine snowpack, but the dirt also melts the snow faster.

A general feeling of uncertainty has become part of the job for Wrone, who only begins making snow when the “wet bulb temperature” — a measure that combines heat and humidity — falls to 24 degrees Fahrenheit.

Snowmaking typically occurs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, but that schedule has become much less predictable in recent years.

A La Niña hat trick

The coming winter is promising to be a La Niña year — when winters tend to be colder in the U.S. Northwest and warmer in the Southeast. This would be the third consecutive such season in which cold ocean temperatures stretch over the equatorial Pacific, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But what that means for the Colorado River headwaters region is uncertain, as this part of the Rocky Mountains sits on the meteorological divide, what expert Scott Handel described as a “battleground zone” where there are equal chances that the winter could go in either direction.

Such a “triple-dip” La Niña has occurred only twice since the 1950s, according to Handel, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

While Handel could not predict this winter’s snowfall, he offered an ominous outlook for the remainder of the fall. Most of Colorado, he said, would receive below-normal precipitation this season, and the range of the ongoing drought is only expected to increase.

“That’s not good news,” Handel said.

Water rights are a uniquely Western U.S. phenomenon that date back to the mid-1800s, when miners and farmers were able to claim water for various uses based on a “first in time, first in right” approach. 

This means that a downstream user today could potentially hold a higher-priority consumption status than a user at a river’s headwaters — and during drought, those with junior status are the first to lose their water.  

While the ski resort areas of Aspen and Snowmass have relatively senior water rights, there are places downstream with even higher status.

For example, the two most senior rights on the Colorado River — called the Shoshone Hydropower Plant and the Cameo Call water rights — are located downstream from the ski areas. And on occasion, these areas make rights “calls” for their water. 

Ski resort areas such as Aspen have underground water storage that has historically served as a buffer if such a call occurs, said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.

Craig Corona, a water lawyer based in Aspen, said that the ski resort regions are starting to see the timing of those so-called Cameo Calls shift earlier in the season after typically only beginning in summer or early fall. 

“The timing of the runoff, the timing of the melt and the timing at which we’re receiving snowfall is changing,” Corona said. “That’s changing the call regime, and that is causing some stress.”

Corona said that earlier calls for water could greatly affect the region’s municipalities because they have year-round demand.

“But on the West Slope and in the headwaters areas, we rely on the fact that you really only have to be concerned about water rights calls in the summer, during the irrigation season,” he said. 

“When that paradigm changes, or if that paradigm changes, it’s going to be difficult for people to adjust,” Corona added.

At that point, he speculated, consumers and policymakers are “going to have to become very innovative and very creative” about the ways the region structures its water usage. 

The process of snowmaking itself is what Schendler described as “a way to operate your business” that offers some stability.

“If you’re in a ski town, you’ve hired someone and you’ve told them and you found them housing, which is really hard,” he said. “And you’ve told them they’ll have a job on Thanksgiving, and it doesn’t snow and you can’t give them a job — they’re going to go somewhere else.” 

Snowmaking, he continued, is therefore a key element in creating “an economy that’s semipredictable” and that allows for some sense of planning. 

Flexing ski power

Schendler, however, expressed pessimism about the ski industry’s long-term survival amid the changing climate, stressing that “there’s too much warming in the system.” In general, he said, industry “hasn’t responded as if they saw the climate as the threat it is.”

Today’s ski industry responses involve steps like switching lightbulbs, when what is needed is broader legislation to tackle the problem, such as the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act.

As a powerful and generally wealthy sector, the outdoor industry is “very well-equipped” to wield political power and “could drive the kinds of change required,” according to Schendler.

Noting that many GOP-leaning states have winter economies that depend on the survival of snowmobiling and skiing, Schendler added that “snow is currency in this business.”

“When it snows, the winter economies make more money, people book tickets, they book hotels,” Schendler said. “Large chunks of America have economies based around coldness.”

Collentine agreed that although skiing is a leisure activity that involves only a small percentage of the population, the industry does “have a big voice” and should focus on electing officials who will facilitate change.

But as the climate warms without adequate action, Collentine expressed fears that operators might need to curtail ski season on some mountains, such as the popular Arapahoe Basin, which used to operate through July Fourth.

“In a warming world that’ll be harder,” Collentine said.

Schendler added that there may come a time when it might not matter whether these sites have enough water — because it may be “too hot to make snow anyway.”

“In Aspen, there’s a month less winter than when we opened in 1947,” Schendler said.

A slope of ice and fire

And not only is snowpack at the mercy of a changing climate, but it is also falling victim to another climate-induced phenomenon: the growth in Western wildfires.

Wildfires in the West are causing some regions, including the Rocky Mountains, to see less peak snow accumulation and fewer days with snow on the ground, recent research from Colorado State University has found.

Once forests are burned, the remaining trees no longer block as much energy from the sun, according to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September.

The charred timber also sheds soot that makes snow melt quicker — particularly in the higher elevations where snow is deepest and persists the longest, the researchers determined.

“Places that really get a lot of snow that sticks around throughout the winter — that’s where we’re going to see more of the effects,” said first author Stephanie Kampf, a professor at Colorado State University’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.

Less snow in such areas — including in the Colorado River headwaters region — could likewise mean less water for an entire region that depends on mountain snowpack for its water supply, the study warned. 

While wildfires threaten the entire U.S. West, the Rockies are at a unique disadvantage in comparison to, say, the perpetually cloudy Cascade Mountains. Unlike the Pacific Northwest, Colorado is subject to near-constant sunlight — a problem made worse by tree loss, according to Kampf.   

Back at Aspen Snowmass, Wrone, the snowmaking manager, had a more positive outlook about the Colorado River’s future — and a vision as to how the techniques perfected by those in his industry could actually help keep the system flowing.

“What we do, it’s actually a frozen reservoir,” Wrone said, referring to the ski trails themselves as an optimal place for water storage.

“We put it on the mountain in the fall and it goes back to the river in the spring,” he continued. “It’s not like we use it.”

While stressing that he isn’t a water planning expert, Wrone said he has long envisioned a future in which snowmakers “could potentially store water rights for people down river.”

“I would see having a partnership with agriculture,” he suggested. “We use their water to make our snow, and then it goes back into the river in the spring.”

“It actually seems to me like snowmaking might be a positive water storage for the situation,” Wrone added.

Previously in this series:

Compounding fires and floods in Southwest pose dire threat to drinking water

In Utah, drying Great Salt Lake leads to air pollution

Texas cities in fear of running out of water

Texas cattle industry faces existential crisis from historic drought

Lakes Mead and Powell are at the epicenter of the biggest Western drought in history

Seven stats that explain the West’s epic drought

Why Great Plains agriculture is particularly vulnerable to drought

Five reasons extreme weather is bigger in Texas

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