By Allen Best
The importance of snowmaking
If temperatures were warm and snow scarce, winter has been long for snowmaking crews at most ski resorts of the West. For many, the work typically ends by Christmas or at least early January.
Not this year. Snowmaking continues even as storms have now arrived.
With the rockiest start to winter in decades at many resorts, many resorts will probably re-evaluate investments in water, snowguns and other infrastructure, say officials involved with the ski industry.
“Snowmaking is something you can never take for granted,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association and a former supervisor of snowmaking crews.
“It takes constant upgrading, constant improvements, constant effort to improve your water rights. And just when you think you don’t need it is the year you will need it the most,” he added. “There’s no more stark juxtaposition than last year compared to this year all across the mountain West.”
Not all resorts have substantial snowmaking systems, however. Many ski areas along the crest of California’s Sierra Nevada, particularly in Tahoe, suffered with almost no natural snow and just thin ribbons of manmade snow.
“It was just remarkable. I don’t think I have ever been in a mountain area in the latter of part of January where there was so little snow,” said Porzak after a ski industry meeting at California’s Squaw Valley. “It was brutal.”
Porzak has helped ski areas in Colorado and other Western states secure water rights for snowmaking since the 1970s. After every significant drought, ski areas have invested heavily in additional snowmaking capabilities. The more well-heeled have invested even when no drought is imminent.
This year, Porzak expects ski areas to engage in an intense re-evaluation of water needs and snowmaking infrastructure. The need is most obvious in the Lake Tahoe resorts, where fresh snow is often measured by the foot, not by the inch. This year, however, Squaw had just two runs covered with snow as of Jan. 19, the day before natural snow started arriving.
But decisions to invest in snowmaking are made against a matrix of financial, topographic and climatic factors.
The complex calculus is evident at the Lake Tahoe resorts. There, Heavenly and Northstar both have long had sophisticated snowmaking systems, which has put them in better stead for the tough early season this winter, says NSAA’s Berry
But resorts allocated along the crest of the Sierra Nevada – Squaw Valley, Homewood, Alpine Meadows and others – have fewer options for water. Water delivery can be engineered, for a price. But even then, will temperatures be low enough to make snow? Berry points out that when a high-pressure dome hovers over Lake Tahoe, temperatures tend to be warmer, unlike the higher, usually colder mountain ranges in the interior West.
Ski resorts scrunched along the spine of the Wasatch Range in Utah are also hard-pressed to find water. Park City and Deer Valley are well positioned, and Canyons partially so. At Snowbird managers have reclaimed water sullied from old mines into water pure enough for use in snowmaking.
But with rival demands for water from municipalities both at Park City and across the range in the Salt Lake Valley, the water story in Utah is something like store shelves were in the old Soviet era in Moscow: not much was for sale.
Trash says economy levels off
EAGLE, Colo. – For decades, sewage treatment managers in the Vail-Beaver Creek area have estimated peak-season populations with what has sometimes been called the flush factor. Something of a comparable metric, trash dumped at the Eagle County Landfill, is now being used to chart the economy.
The Eagle Valley Enterprise reports that tonnage of construction debris has dropped 68 percent since 2007. Compacted trash delivered by trucks servicing homes and businesses dropped 23 percent.
Ken Whitehead, director of Eagle County Solid Waste and Recycling, believes that the drop in compacted trash had indicated an exodus of people from the valley. Also, with the recession, people were buying less. He says 30 percent of what ends up in the landfill comes from packaging of goods.
“During a recession, people are less likely to buy a TV. And that means there will be less packaging to be recycled or go into the landfill.”
John Lewis, Eagle County Finance Director, told the newspaper that trash tells the story of the economy more rapidly than other economic indicators. “We don’t get unemployment or sales tax numbers for a month and a half,” Lewis said. “If you want to know how the economy is really doing, you should check out your neighbors’ trash.”
And what do the most recent trash-talk numbers say about the economy? Whitehead, the landfill boss, says the economy overall seems to be leveling off. Construction and demolition waste, however, continues to decline. “It hasn’t flattened out yet,” he says.
Whistler breaks hotel records
WHISTLER, B.C. – Blessed by abundant snow when many others have not, Whistler had a blockbuster Christmas season.
Room nights were up 12 percent from the previous winter, and they also surpassed the previous record, set in 2007, by 7 percent. This January has potential to be among the strongest of the month ever recorded.
Pique Newsmagazine attributes the success not only to the snowfall, but also to advertising campaigns conducted in the early season. The campaigns were directed at the long-haul markets, meaning those outside of the Vancouver area.
Since Christmas, Whistler has stepped up its advertising even more in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Seattle.
The irony is that despite breaking records, room rates stayed flat or even dipped during December. Some hoteliers are saying that this simply must change. But Stuart Remple, the senior vice president of marketing and sales for Whistler Blackcomb, the ski area, warns against impatience.
“We’re not just competing with other ski resorts. People have choices. They can go to Mexico, if it’s on sale. Or they can go to Hawaii, if it’s on sale. They can go to Las Vegas, if it’s on sale.
“We just have to be really careful that we don’t get too carried away as a resort and all of a sudden jack up our rates.”