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Ski the snow in the winter, drink it next summer

Denver Water’s tie to ski areas, snowmaking in Summit and Grand counties.

When it comes to winter, ski areas and Denver Water have a few things in common — they both love snow, and they both share the snow that falls on the mountains in Grand and Summit counties. 

Denver Water collects water from melting snow in the mountains for its customers on the Front Range. The water collection area includes the Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Frisco Adventure Park, Keystone and Winter Park ski resorts. 

Snow that melts into the Snake River near Keystone Resort flows into Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir. Photo credit: Denver Water.

When snow falls over these ski areas, the snow you ski on will one day end up in one of Denver Water’s reservoirs, and eventually flow out of your faucets. So, the more powder days we have in the winter, the more water Denver Water can capture and store in its reservoirs.

Denver Water also plays a role in snowmaking at the resorts.

Where does your water come from? Let’s pull up a map.

During times when Mother Nature gets a little stingy and holds back the flakes, resorts rely on machine-made snow to cover their slopes. 

But snowmaking requires a key ingredient: water.

When snowmaking picked up in the 1980s, Denver Water made agreements to allow the six ski areas to use water in the utility’s collection area for snowmaking purposes. 

Workers at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area run water through a machine to make snow on the mountain. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The agreements are needed because Denver Water owns water rights in the mountains where the ski areas are located. The water rights date back to the 1920s and 1940s, before the ski areas were open or had snowmaking systems.

Denver Water allows the six ski areas to “borrow” up to 6,300 acre-feet of water for snowmaking each ski season based on agreements from 1985, 1992 and 2013. That’s around 2 billion gallons of water.

Learn more about different kinds of snowflakes, and which ones hold the most water

The ski areas use the water to make snow. Then, once the season is over, the resorts “return” the water in the spring when the snow melts and flows into canals, rivers and streams that feed into Denver Water’s reservoirs.

Because some of the water is lost to evaporation during the snowmaking process and over the winter, the ski areas have water rights and agreements to pay back the lost water if needed by Denver Water.

While the ski areas are storing the borrowed water in their own tanks and reservoirs and using it to make snow, Denver Water is still required to meet downstream water obligations on the Colorado River. 

Winter Park Resort crews use water from Denver Water’s collection area to make snow. Photo credit: Winter Park Ski Resort.

The utility meets these obligations by releasing water it stored in the Williams Fork Reservoir the previous summer.

Two ski resorts, Keystone and Winter Park, have unique connections with Denver Water.

At Keystone, the Roberts Tunnel, which connects Dillon Reservoir to the Front Range, runs underneath the resort. The proximity allows Keystone to pump water from the tunnel and use it for snowmaking, giving them a reliable supply of water.

At Winter Park, one of Denver Water’s canals flows through the resort and right next to some of the ski runs, which makes it easy for crews to access water for their snow guns.

Denver Water crews use snowmobiles to access a canal that flows through Winter Park Resort. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Each resort has its own system for capturing and storing water. 

“Snowmaking is critical to early season skiing,” said Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer at Arapahoe Basin ski area in Summit County. “We can’t make snow without water.”

Henceroth says Arapahoe Basin can use around 1,000 gallons of water per minute when at full snowmaking capacity.

Check out this video of snowmaking operations at Arapahoe Basin from 2017. 

New technology over the years has made snowmaking more efficient, so that resorts can make more snow with less water.

The agreements between Denver Water and the ski areas show how people on both sides of the Continental Divide can work together to manage water.

“Allowing the ski areas to use water for snowmaking is a way to get multiple uses out of every drop,” said Cindy Brady, a senior water resource engineer for Denver Water. “The ski areas get water to make snow, and we recover it afterward, so it’s a win-win for all of us.”