Keystone, Breckenridge and A-Basin invest $75,000 in an effort to boost mountain snowfall
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Colorado’s early season conditions are getting rave reviews from skiers and riders, and this year, Mother Nature can’t take all the credit. Three Summit County ski areas are funding a regional cloud-seeding program operated by Durango-based Western Weather Consultants to boost early season snowfall.
Combined, Keystone, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin are pitching in $75,000 to help pay for the installation of five new silver iodide generators and two months of operations, with an option to extend the deal for a third month at a cost of $20,000.
Vail has been cloud-seeding for more than 30 years, but this the first time Summit County ski resorts have been directly targeted by the program, which is part of a larger regional effort to increase winter snowfall and spring runoff.
“We see this as a great opportunity to collaborate with Denver Water to enhance the snowpack for both our guests and the community. We plan to work closely with both Denver Water and Western Weather throughout the winter to try to analyze and understand the effectiveness of this program,” said Breckenridge ski resort spokesperson Kristen Petitt.
Denver Water has been working with Winter Park ski area since last winter on a similar program. The Summit County operation is covered under the same permit, issued under the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s weather modification program. The five-year permit was most recently renewed in 2007.
The state permitting process addresses environmental and public safety concerns with triggers that require a cessation of cloud-seeding in certain conditions, For example, when parts of Colorado were under a blizzard warning during the Thanksgiving weekend, cloud seeding stopped.
Other than allowing the Summit County program to operate under its umbrella permit for Central Colorado, Denver Water isn’t directly involved with the cloud seeding in Summit County, said Steve Schmitzer, manager of water resources analysis for the utility. Still, any extra snow that falls on the three resorts will ultimately benefit Denver Water’s supplies, since all the snow from those areas runs off into Dillon Reservoir.
The Summit County cloud-seeding program involves manually operated ground-based generators that release silver iodide particles into the atmosphere when conditions are favorable for precipitation. The particles help provide additional seed material for snow crystal formation. By some commonly accepted estimates, the process can increase precipitation by 5 to 15 percent.
“It’s not a drought buster,” said Joe Busto, who heads Colorado’s weather modification program. “We can try to get a few more millimeters per storm,” he added, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the program, with funding coming from state grants and even from water users in several Lower Colorado River Basin states, including New Mexico, Nevada and California. “Instead of fighting over shortages, we’re trying to be pro-active to increase water supplies,” he said.
State grants for the program total $350,000, while Denver Water and Winter Park each kicked in $55,000. Busto said the state’s focus is on operational grants and new equipment, including two new remotely operated, high-elevation generators as part of the Winter Park program. Some of the best cloud-seeding science available suggests that such high-elevation generators are more effective than valley stations. Click here to learn more about the weather modification grant program.
To seed clouds successfully, Western Weather Consultants keeps a close eye on the weather forecasts and calls local operators to fire up the generators when conditions are right. For the Summit County program, the company set up five new generators this fall, said owner Larry Hjermstad. Operations started with early November storms and continued as recently as early this week, Hjermstad said.
Some of the new sites are located in the Blue River Valley, where they can seed flows from the north. Others near Camp Hale, Minturn and East Vail, to be used when moist winds blow from the west. Three other sites are common to the Winter Park and the Summit County program, Hjermstad said, explaining that the generators used for cloud seeding at Vail could also be used to enhance Summit County snowfall.
“We’re trying to integrate the two programs,” Hjermstad said. “We’re set up for when winds are out of the west-southwest to northwest,” he said, adding that future plans could include more generators up toward Hoosier Pass and even around Frisco. “Right now, it’s more like a shotgun approach than a rifle approach. We could do more with more generators, but it’s a start.”
For now Copper Mountain is not included in the program, Hjernstad said, adding that he’d like to speak with the resorts new owners about the program. Hjermstad said that Copper could be challenging because of the local topography, and also because any cloud-seeding that targets Copper could also bring unwanted extra snow to the Climax Mine area.