As climate change ravages the Mountain West, ski industry mavericks are looking to boost disappearing snowpack by making snow with recycled wastewater.
BY GABRIELLE GASSER
When the snow guns roared to life at Arizona Snowbowl resort in December of 2012, the small ski area made history for two reasons: it was the first time Snowbowl ever made its own snow and it was the first time in the U.S. that snow was made entirely with treated wastewater.
After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added snowmaking as a viable water-reuse option in 2012, Snowbowl seized the opportunity. It had to. Located on an extinct volcano in Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, Snowbowl had no viable water source, according to J.R. Murray, chief planning officer at Mountain Capital Partners, which manages Snowbowl.
“We chose reclaimed water because it was a known source at the time and Flagstaff already had a [water] treatment facility that met the highest standards,” said Murray, who served as Snowbowl’s general manager for 30 years. “Otherwise, we were going to have to drill speculative wells.”
A coalition of environmental groups and Native tribes that considered the mountain sacred argued that snowmaking would contaminate it. They filed suit and, in 2018, a judge ruled in favor of Snowbowl’s upgrade plans, which included the snowmaking initiative. Today, Snowbowl receives 1.5 million gallons of water per day from the Rio de Flag Water Reclamation Plant to manufacture snow on 150 skiable acres.
“The snowmaking totally stabilized the business and provided predictability to the skiers and snowboarders and the community,” said Murray, attributing 650 winter jobs and a $35 million increase in Flagstaff’s annual economic impact to the snowmaking system. “It’s just been the difference between a hit-and-miss ski area and now a very successful ski area.”
In the Mountain West, saving water and recharging the water supply by making snow with reclaimed wastewater could be the key to saving the ski season.
According to the June 2021 Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment that analyzed climate data for the Greater Yellowstone Area, including Big Sky, regional snowpack is declining, the average temperature is rising and more precipitation is on the way. While increased precipitation sounds like a positive thing, in this case it isn’t.
“The problem is it’s getting warmer, and that means there is less snow in winter and more evaporation in summer,” said Dr. Cathy Whitlock, professor emerita of Earth Sciences at Montana State University and co-lead author on the assessment. “Snow is the reservoir of water that we depend on in this region. Keeping that snowpack on as long as possible is what gives us reliable supplies of water at the end of the summer.”
The assessment also noted that since 1950, annual snowfall has declined by about 25 percent, meaning that each year 23 fewer inches of snow is falling. Not only does this decrease bode ill for water supply in the Mountain West, it also threatens the recreational opportunities that many travel here to enjoy, namely skiing.
Nine years after Snowbowl tapped into making snow with reclaimed wastewater, fewer than a dozen ski resorts worldwide are following suit. One happens to be the world’s only private residential ski and golf resort.
“The problem is it’s getting warmer, and that means there is less snow in winter and more evaporation in summer” – Cathy Whitlock, Montana State University
Tucked away near Big Sky, Montana, the exclusive Yellowstone Club is also looking to make snow with treated wastewater. The effort began in 2011 when local nonprofit Gallatin River Task Force conducted a pilot study to test the concept. The study expanded to include the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and formed the basis for the club’s current project.
The project will use 25 million gallons of “highly treated wastewater,” according to Yellowstone Club Environmental Manager Rich Chandler, to make an 18-inch snow base over 55 skiable acres at the club. Most of the wastewater will be sourced from Big Sky’s water and sewer district, and about 20 percent will come from the club’s own plant.
Chandler says artificial snow can remain on the ground 19 days longer than natural snowpack due to its greater density, meaning precious runoff is extended further into the summer. “The need to recycle water within our watershed is such an important part of how we manage our land today,” Chandler said. “And combining the reclaimed wastewater component with snowmaking seems to be a phenomenal statement of overall recycling within the environment.”
In 2016, the task force convened the Sustainable Water Solutions Forum, bringing together stakeholders that met regularly over two-and-a-half years to discuss the challenges of water availability in Big Sky. To expand wastewater-reuse options, the group identified snowmaking with recycled wastewater as one solution that became part of the Big Sky Area Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan, published in 2018.
Three years later, in June of 2021, the Yellowstone Club obtained a Montana DEQ permit to make snow with reclaimed wastewater. The permit stipulates that the club must continually monitor the project to discern if and how melting snow is impacting the river. Leading up to its decision, the DEQ received an outpouring of support for the initiative from environmental groups, individuals and businesses in the Big Sky area, according to Jon Kenning, DEQ’s water protection bureau chief.
“This proposal is the first permit of its kind in Montana,” Kenning said. “It has the potential to provide increased protection for streams while also providing a necessary function for the Yellowstone Club.”
As part of the permitting process, the DEQ completed an environmental assessment of the snowmaking project, concluding that impacts to water quality, wildlife and plant life, among other resources considered, would be insignificant. But not everyone was on board.
Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, along with the Gallatin Wildlife Association, filed a lawsuit in August of 2021 against DEQ, asserting that the agency’s environmental assessment did not analyze the impacts of pharmaceuticals in the water.
“There are more than 4,000 prescription medications used for human and animal health that find their way into the environment,” said Clint Nagel, president of the GWA, pointing to information from the U.S. Geological Survey. “The cumulative effect on wildlife and fish over time can affect their health and behavior; of course much of that is dependent upon amount and species.”
Currently, the EPA has no standards for the acceptable level of pharmaceuticals in water, according to Kenning. “Research is still being conducted to better understand this emerging contaminant,” he said.
As of November 2021, when Mountain Outlaw went to print, no litigation timeline had been set and parties involved would not speculate on the outcome.
Chandler says the Yellowstone Club’s snowmaking effort is endorsed by conservation organizations including Trout Unlimited, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Gallatin River Task Force, and American Rivers. “It’s a great project and the right thing to
do for our community and the environment,” he said.
“The need to recycle water within our watershed is such an important part of how we manage our land today” – Rich Chandler, Yellowstone Club
The Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment concluded that the ski industry and associated economies “will be threatened by the continued loss of snowpack as the [Greater Yellowstone Area] snow season becomes shorter and more uncertain.”
Charles Wolf Drimal, a fierce advocate for wild waters in the American West, is coauthor of the assessment and has spent a lifetime working in conservation and environmental policy. He says the Yellowstone Club’s snowmaking project will decrease nutrient loading in area waters, and will create a store of water in colder months that will augment stream flows in the spring and summer.
“We’re in a time of climate crisis,” said Drimal, the Waters Conservation Coordinator of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “The Gallatin [River] has experienced consecutive algal blooms and we need innovative solutions. This project is an innovative solution to addressing a couple of interests that folks in the region have and that is, one: climate adaptation, and two: nutrient loading to one of the most iconic rivers in the region.”
The final piece to get the Yellowstone Club’s project off the ground will be obtaining a stormwater permit from the DEQ. According to Chandler, the goal is to have the project up and running by fall of 2022.
In the wake of the club’s innovative measure, the task force will conduct a new study to assess the viability of snowmaking with treated wastewater at adjacent Big Sky Resort and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club. The hope is that these ski industry leaders will follow in the Yellowstone Club’s footsteps and help address climate change concerns in the region.
“Water is a limited resource. Reusing treated wastewater to make snow is a model that addresses challenges from climate change and interests in recreation simultaneously,” Drimal said. “I’m an avid skier and I have a stake in this, not just as a conservationist … I want to see the future of a sport that I love—and [which] has given me mental, physical, spiritual health and bliss in my life—I want to see that for myself and for my grandchildren.”
Gabrielle Gasser is Assistant Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine and Staff Writer for its sister publication, Explore Big Sky newspaper.