Ski areas need a boat load of water for snowmaking – will the drought hurt them?

  • The lower retention pond at Ragged Mountain Resort in Danbury is being expanded from 4 million to 24 million gallons, as seen Tuesday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Construction crews work to expand the retention pond at Ragged Mountain Resort in Danbury on Tuesday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Ragged Mountain in Danbury as seen Tuesday. The resort doesn’t anticipate issues with snowmaking despite the drought. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Ragged Mountain Resort in Danbury as seen on Oct. 11, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 10/15/2016 12:04:17 AM

With wells running dry and pastures turning brown in drought-stricken New Hampshire, it’s fair to wonder what’s in store for an industry so dependent on water that using 10,000 gallons a minute is commonplace.

Not much, as it turns out.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” said Benjamin Hall, marketing manager for Ragged Mountain Resort in Danbury, which is in the midst of a six-fold expansion of one of its water storage ponds.

With less rainfall, ponds and streams are lower than normal, but it’s less of a weather factor than a relative heat wave in the month of January.

“We are not concerned at this point about the drought limiting our ability to make snow,” wrote Greg Goddard, general manager of Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, in an email responding to a Monitor query.

“It’s a little dry out there, but nothing we haven’t seen before,” said Kris Blombeck, general manager of Pats Peak Ski Area in Henniker. “We have a fairly robust spring-fed system. We’re holding our own, if you will.”

It’s no surprise ski areas would be reluctant to trumpet any weakness in their water supply, which is key to the snowmaking that makes the industry possible. But the state agency that oversees them agrees that all seems well, for a number of reasons.

One is preparation.

“There has been a lot of investment over the last 10 years in building structures to store and handle water,” said Ted Diers, administrator of the Watershed Management Bureau of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

That bureau hands out water withdrawal permits for ski areas that will need to use at least 20,000 gallons in any given day – which is all of them, since a mid-sized ski area turns 10,000 gallons of water into snow every minute when it needs to create good coverage.

Permitting takes into account the effect of the ski area’s system on the environment, such as whether it would drain a creek, said Diers, as well as whether it would have an effect on nearby water supplies.

“They’re generally not taking from wells. There’s very little interaction between them and drinking supplies,” Diers said.

There’s also the fact that ski areas turn water into snow, which eventually melts and flows back into the local watershed or, if it’s late enough that the ground isn’t frozen, into the aquifer.

“We get all that water back – they’re mostly borrowing it for a couple of months,” Diers said.

Another fact is the pattern of areas’ water needs.

Ski and snowboard areas generally use lots of water at the very start of the season to build a skiable base of snow, and also a lot to get ready for the make-or-break February school vacation weeks, but otherwise snowmaking is often reduced.

“It’s different than a golf course where, no matter what, they’ve got to water that green, or different than a farm, which has to irrigate the fields,” he said. “They can be more flexible in their timing.”

Such flexibility explains the importance of retention ponds, where water can be stored until needed.

Ragged Mountain is in the process of enlarging its lower snowmaking pond, from being able to hold 4 million gallons to being able to hold 24 million gallons. The resort also has a snowmaking pond further up the hill, and draws water from a nearby bog to help fill them.

Hall said the expansion, which is projected to be done by late November, wasn’t prodded by the drought.

“We’ve had this project planned for a long time. What it does for us is it increases our storage capacity so we don’t have to rely on pulling from the bog as much, which is a good thing,” he said.

Goddard, at Gunstock, said the state gave the resort an exception from its environmental rules “which allowed us to begin storing that water earlier than usual. That impoundment is already nearly three-quarters full, which is plenty of water to start the snowmaking season,” he wrote.

At state-owned Cannon Mountain, Diers said, the state lifted the usual requirement to reduce the level of Echo Lake in preparation for winter (developed lakes are generally lowered in late fall to reduce damage done to shoreline structures by ice when freezing weather hits). The lake’s level is low enough already.

And then there’s Mount Sunapee Resort which has what may be the biggest retention pond in New England, since it draws its water as needed directly from Lake Sunapee.

Lake Sunapee is much lower than usual, as was shown in August when the MV Mt. Sunapee cruise boat ran aground on the resort’s intake pipe, which was much closer to the surface than usual. But even so, said Jay Gamble, vice president and general manager of the resort, the snowmaking supply is in no danger.

“The gauge of the lake level (at) Sunapee Harbor shows . . . it’s a foot, foot-and-a-half higher than the normal winter level it is drawn down to, to allow for ice buildup,” he said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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