The Environmental Impact of Snowmaking in Colorado: Water Policy Must Adapt to Save the Ski Industry 

by Kylie Kenny

For many ski towns in Colorado, including my hometown of Aspen, skiing and ski tourism are not only the primary source of economic support but also a way of life that is foundational to the values of the community. As climate change proliferates, there is expected to be less and more unreliable snowfall in the Rocky Mountains.[1] With an increase in global temperature, snowmaking will play an even larger role in keeping the ski industry alive. It is estimated that by 2050, ski resorts in Colorado will need to increase their water supply by about 41%.[2]

Snowmaking has increased drastically to account for changes in the pattern of snowfall. According to the Aspen Times, the Aspen Skiing Company has increased its snowmaking capabilities across all four mountains within the last ten years.[3] More frequently than not during the previous decade, opening day at Aspen consists of only the top half of Aspen Mountain being open, with a large portion of the snow being man made.[4] With Thanksgiving being the traditional open time for the Skiing Co. for the 75 years that it has been functioning, the company does everything it can to get lifts spinning.[5] However, in 2021, 2020 and 2019, weather patterns prohibited sizable snowfall, and warm temperatures foiled snowmaking conditions on the lower half of the mountain.[6]

Snowmaking has proven to be a double edged sword in terms of snowfall and the ski industry: while it has allowed Aspen to open for skiing, it is very expensive, both financially and in the toll it takes on the environment. While Aspen would not be able to open without snowmaking, CEO Mike Kaplan discussed how the cost of it threatens the financial standing of the Skiing Co.[7] From an ecological standpoint, snowmaking requires megawatts of energy to compress water into snow.[8] On top of that, snowmaking already demands 2.2 billion gallons of water within Colorado each year, not including the slated increase.[9] While snowmaking is necessary to protect Aspen’s traditional ski season, it is also participating in the rapid rise of global temperature by burning mass quantities of energy generated by the burning of fossil fuels. 

Water policy is heavily contested, especially in the American West. The Colorado River is responsible for supplying Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming with water, and in recent years the river has not reached its mouth of the Gulf of California.[10] As of 2014, Aspen Mountain alone used about 400,000 gallons of water per year to make snow, and this is just one mountain of four in the Aspen system, and one of many within the state.[11] Additionally, this number has only increased since 2014. Since snowmaking demands so much water, the question is whether the state of Colorado will adapt to allow for ski resorts to use more water over the course of a ski season. The mountains provide much of the water for the Colorado River, and many of the streams near my home are approximately 8 minutes from snowmelt-to-stream. Since so many different states and regions rely on the Colorado River as a water source, it will require trans-state cooperation to determine a solution, as well as to decide whether or not snowmaking is a worthy cause to dedicate water to. 

In terms of solutions, using man-made snow as a way to trap water during the winter is a viable solution.[12]Snowmelt runoff is a critical cyclical form of water storage in Colorado, particularly for the Colorado River watershed.[13] Snow can be used for recreational skiing purposes, but also to mimic the normal naturally occurring snowpack levels for water management.[14] This will require the water rights to be revisited and the policy for this does not exist yet, however, I believe that this is the most viable solution as it allows for effective water management but also keeps the ski industry afloat. An issue with this approach is that there is no pre-existing policy that can serve as the blueprint for this, so it would require a new approach to water management. Additionally, snowmaking has become more energy and water efficient, however, it needs to continue to do so to continue to meet the current snowmaking demand, as well as meet growing demands from unreliable snowfall.[15]

Another solution that Aspen has implemented is creating new high elevation terrain, called “Hero’s.”[16] The terrain was opened for the first time in the Winter 2023-24 season, and is almost entirely above 10,000 feet above sea level.[17] Above this elevation, snowfall is slated to be much more reliable than at the base of the mountain at approximately 7,000 feet above sea level.[18] While this may not be an option for every ski resort and community, there is a lot of undeveloped terrain on the Colorado high peaks. Policies such as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act are proposing an addition to the land in the White River National forest, which encompasses 11 ski areas.[19] Further cooperation between ski areas and the Forest Service could increase the amount of high elevation terrain offered at Colorado ski resorts and mitigate the use of snowmaking. Should the CORE Act come to fruition, this may also offer more National Forest land near ski areas to be used as high elevation terrain. 

Skiing is a massive contributor to Colorado’s GDP and accounts for $4.8 billion dollars annually (as of 2021) of the state’s economy. [20] Saving Colorado’s ski tourism and way of life is going to require public pressure, company pressure, and policy cooperation. 

[1] Alex Hager.”A Snow Drought is Leaving the West’s Mountains High and Dry.” KUER News. Published December 27, 2023.

[2] Shannon Mullane. “How Do Colorado Ski Areas Prepare for a Changing Climate? Ask Eldora Mountain Resort.” Fresh Water News, Water Education Colorado.

[3] Scott Condon. “Even with Expanded System, Snowmaking Faces Challenges on Aspen Mountain This Season.” Aspen Times, 21 Nov. 2021.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] “Colorado Skiing: Snowmaking Uses Millions Of Gallons Of Water Each Year.” CBS Denver. Published December 17, 2021.

[9] Ibid

[10] United States Bureau of Reclamation. “Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study: Executive Summary.” 2016.

[11] “Turning Water Into Snow.” Colorado Public Radio. Last modified December 24, 2014.

[12] “Is Snowmaking an Answer to Colorado’s Water Woes?” Colorado Politics. September 30, 2022.

[13] Ibid 

[14] Ibid

[15] “Colorado ski resorts turn to snowmaking as drought lingers.” The Denver Post. Published January 26, 2022.

[16] Kelley Manley”Aspen Mountain’s Massive Expansion Is Designed to Outrun Climate Change.” 5280 Magazine. Published November 2023.

[17] Ibid 

[18] Ibid

[19] “White River National Forest – Recreation.” U.S. Forest Service. n.d.,each%20ski%20area’s%20uphill%20policy.

[20] RRC Associates. “Economic Impact of Skiing in Colorado.” 2021.’s,including%20direct%20and%20secondary%20effects.

One thought on “The Environmental Impact of Snowmaking in Colorado: Water Policy Must Adapt to Save the Ski Industry 

  1. As someone who has never been skiing, I’ve admittedly never thought about the need for man-made snow. However, this is a fascinating case study of balancing local economies with sustainable practices. While man-made snow is a viable short-term solution to preserve the Colorado economy, it is not sustainable long-term, especially as the planet continues to warm and snowfall becomes a larger issue for ski towns. Inadvertently, the use of man-made snow would only exacerbate the problem it aims to solve. The water usage in the West further complicates the issue in a way that I hadn’t thought about before. I think that the high-elevation terrain sounds like a viable alternative for the near future, but would require expensive infrastructure. However, at a certain point, it is unfeasible to keep moving up the mountain as the planet continues to warm and snowfall is impacted at higher elevations. I would be interested to know what you think about the future of skiing and ski economies in Colorado long-term as someone from the area.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.