Snowmaking has been changed by technology
Even with snow in the weather forecast, Heavenly Mountain Resort continues its snowmaking operations in an effort to open the remainder of the mountain, where three chairs remained closed because of low snowpack as of Thursday.
But the process of making snow has come a long way since veteran snowmaker Barrett Burghard picked up the trade 20 years ago.
Now Heavenly’s snowmaking manager, Burghard recounted his early days with the resort’s snowmaking crew, when employees were sent up the slopes to manually check thermometers to see if conditions were right to make snow.
At the time, the resort didn’t have humidity sensors, now a standard tool used to determine when to fire up snow-making guns.
“We probably missed some nights here and there,” Burghard said.
Early season opportunities to make snow are rarely missed nowadays, as each of Heavenly’s 49 automated fan guns has its own remotely monitored weather station.
In addition to the fan guns, “well over a hundred” air and water guns can be controlled by a computer system that boasts a variety of automation and control features previously unimaginable, Burghard said.
“I can check all the stuff from my house,” the snowmaker said, a hint of joy in the voice of a man who has spent more time than most in the midst of Lake Tahoe winters.
While technology has been a boon for snowmakers and early season snow enthusiasts, the supplier of Heavenly’s fan guns, Snow Machines Inc., also sees technological advances stabilizing ski resort business in a changing world.
“With the climate change happening, the ability to make snow at higher temperatures and shorter hourly windows is more important,” said Joe VanderKelen, president of Snow Machines Inc. “Snowmaking has become a very critical part of about 95 percent of the ski areas in North America.”
VanderKelen points to steep, wide runs at relatively low elevations, like Heavenly’s Gunbarrel, as those that have been historically difficult to cover with man-made snow.
These are the runs that stand to benefit most from automated systems, VanderKelen said.
Although VanderKelen did not have exact numbers available, he also said technological advances have created marked increases in snowmaking gun efficiency.
Research director for the Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition, Ben Doon, said the environmental group is encouraged by the increased use of energy- and water-efficient snowmaking machines at ski resorts, but would like to see resorts implement the most efficient equipment at their disposal.
The coalition recently gave Heavenly a grade of “C” on its annual ski area report card, docking points because of an additional 216 acres of snowmaking approved in the resort’s master plan.
Energy consumption, soil disturbance and water use are the primary environmental concerns surrounding snowmaking, Doon said.
Snow is generally made during November and early December when stream flows are at the lowest levels and wildlife is making the most use of scarce water supplies, Doon said.
Last year, Kingsbury General Improvement District (KGID) supplied approximately 49 million gallons of water for snowmaking at Heavenly, while South Tahoe Public Utility District (STPUD) provided about 16 million gallons to the resort last season.
Comparatively, Lake Tahoe itself holds 39 trillion gallons of water.
Although some of STPUD’s water goes to domestic uses at the resort, like flushing toilets, the “vast majority” of water supplied by the district is used for snowmaking, said STPUD Spokesman Dennis Cocking.
Both suppliers said Heavenly’s water use for the 2006-2007 winter was unusually high due to the below-average natural snowfall last season.
During each of the four winters prior to 2006-2007, KGID sold between 21 million and 36 million gallons of water to the resort for snowmaking operations, according to Michelle Runtzel, the district’s business and contracts manager.
While addressing stream flow concerns, Cocking said underground water feeding STPUD wells is replenished almost annually. This yearly recharge decreases the concern that pumping water for snowmaking could lower the area’s water table to a point where streams would be affected, Cocking said.
Both KGID and STPUD noted the resort’s demand for water typically comes at a time of year when overall demand is low.
“We have this system that was designed for the Fourth of July, but it only needs to meet that demand for 12 weeks out of the year,” Cocking said. “They’re using a commodity at a time when we really don’t have the demand.”