The Nasty Environmental Impact of Making Snow

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Snow gunning. Photo: Tim in Syndey/Flickr

Pointing to the sacredness of the San Francisco Peaks north
of Flagstaff, Arizona, a coalition of Native American tribes has been fighting
the development and expansion of Arizona Snowbowl ski resort since 1979. It remains
defiant, reports
the New York Times
, despite
having suffered a key legal defeat this winter. A federal court ruled against the
tribes in a nearly decade-old lawsuit that claims the ski resort's plans to use
treated wastewater from Flagstaff's sewage system to make artificial snow for
the resort would interfere with religious practices and mar the mountains. 

Wait. The resort will use sewage to make snow? Technically,
yes. That's why the story has garnered lots of attention. But recycling treated
wastewater for applications that do not require potable water is not nearly as
icky, nor as uncommon, as it might sound. This type of water is commonly used for irrigating
golf courses and soccer fields, for example.

While Arizona Snowbowl would be the first resort in the U.S.
to use 100 percent treated wastewater to make snow, it's a common practice in
Europe and in parts of Australia, says Hunter Sykes, an environmental sustainability consultant who closely
tracks the outdoor recreation industry and produced a 2007 documentary about
the environmental impacts of rampant ski resort development called Resorting to Madness. “Most people
who work with wastewater don't see this an issue, because it's not going to
make people sick and, as far as we know, it's not going to contaminate flora or
fauna,” he says.

Not everyone is quite so comfortable, though, with the idea of using
treated wastewater for snowmaking. Among the groups that oppose it, on
the grounds that the water may contain chemical inputs from pharmaceuticals and
other potentially hazardous hard-to-trace sources, include the Center for Biological Diversity. Sykes agrees
that there is still much we don't understand about the chemical agents that
persist in treated wastewater and how they could impact the ecosystems into
which they're released, but says if it was up to him, he would use the treated

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for
the Center for Biological Diversity points to a study that linked wastewater
effluent released into a creek in Boulder, Colorado, with abnormal fish gender
. “There is an emerging and growing list of compounds
[about which] we don't know the affects,” he says, but we know that
endocrine disruptors [in wastewater] will change fish sex ratios. This points
to the need for additional research and more advanced water treatment.”

But McKinnon and Sykes do agree on one thing: the real story
here is the increase in snowmaking, industry wide, and the wider environmental
impacts of making snow.

One can argue that for a ski resort in an arid landscape
such as Arizona, reusing wastewater for snowmaking can be a much better
alternative, environmentally speaking, than using increasingly scarce fresh water. In either case, other issues loom large. These include the energy
required to pump the water, the quality of that water (even if it comes from
“natural” sources), and the ways that artificial snowpacks change
mountain landscapes.

In the Times story
about Arizona Snowbowl, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service is quoted
saying that climate change is making snowmaking increasingly necessary at ski
resorts. That may be true, but the act of making snow where coal is used to
generate the energy to make the snow is only exacerbating the situation.

“Burning coal to make snow is a self-destructive
behavior for federal agencies and for outdoor recreation industry,” says

The energy required to make snow will only increase if
winters begin later and skew toward warmer or more erratic temperatures. “For a lot of [ski] areas,
snowmaking is the biggest single expense, even before payroll,” says

Fortunately, many ski resorts are increasing the wind, solar
and other types of renewable, clean-burning fuel they use for power generation.
Plus, snowmaking equipment is increasingly energy efficient.

Ski resorts often make snow using nearby natural streams or
lakes, but that doesn't mean the water is clean. Sykes points to how, in
Colorado, water pulled for snowmaking from the Snake River is
with zinc, copper, lead and other metals that seep from old mining claims.

Even if water that is extracted for snowmaking is clean, the
act of extracting it leads to other “externalities,” he says. For one
thing, pulling clean water upstream from sources of contamination, such as
mining claims, removes the benefits of dilution that the water would have
otherwise provided.

Reducing stream flow could have other consequences as well.
“Another extraction issue is that you're removing sizable amounts of water
from streams in the fall, which is a key time for aquatic life,” says

As snowpacks decrease in some parts of country, the demand
for terrain parks is growing everywhere. To manufacture a sizable terrain park,
ski resorts must manufacture snow. A lot of it.

That has led to more snowmaking, using more water and energy
every year. In some areas, summer comes and goes but the massive piles of snow
that were once halfpipes or tabletops remain. This prevents the natural cycle
of melting and of plant growth and while these areas are small on each
mountain, they add up in aggregate.

“You have a longer runoff period, so you have a lot of
water running off smaller streams and they're carrying increased amounts of
sediment. This is happening in parts of the mountain that have already been
denuded, so topsoil is already depleted,” says Sykes. “You're changing
the profile of the mountain.”

While sewage for snowmaking makes for good headlines, the real
environmental issues seem to be hiding within the business of making snow.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

Trending on Outside Online