As of November 2015, the water being fed into the snow guns at Soda Springs Mountain Resort is coming from a source that is new to ski areas, but is commonplace in drought-affected California: A wastewater treatment plant.
Only the second resort in the country to do this — and the first in California — Donner Summit’s Soda Springs moved forward on the program as a way to reap the benefits of snowmaking while being mindful of water scarcity, according to resort representatives.
“Soda Springs has had only very limited snowmaking until this year due to the amount of potable water available to us,” said Matt Peterson, vice president of marketing at Soda Springs. “Snowmaking adds consistency for our employees and guests, and creates a more substantial season.”
Nearly every resort around Lake Tahoe uses snowmaking to some capacity (see The Snow Machines), and resorts generally source water from on-site sources, or purchase water from local utility districts. While snowmaking is seen as “non-consumptive” in that the water is stored in snow form on the hill and is later returned to the source during spring runoff, using recycled water reduces the initial draw and improves conservation.
“We believe this will conserve about two to three million gallons of potable water throughout the winter,” said Tom Skjelstad, general manager of Donner Summit Public Utility District, the utility that is treating and providing the water. “We have sold potable water to Soda Springs in the past, but had to halt the program the last two years due to lack of water.”
Cause for Concern?
Using treated wastewater raises questions about the quality of the water, but recent renovations at the DSPUD made it all possible. In June, the DSPUD completed a $24 million upgrade, and transitioned from a chlorination/de-chlorination process to an ultraviolet filtration system for treatment, which “put the facility in the modern world,” according to Skjelstad, who noted that the permit would not have been approved with the old filtration system.
Regulation is done through the state of California and meets Title 22 requirements, which are the state guidelines for how treated and recycled water is used. Among a list of other safety measures, water from the DSPUD is tested on a daily basis for coliform and other bacteria.
“It is filtered, oxidized, and disinfected water that meets specifications required under Title 22 for the protection of public health, and undergoes a rigorous monitoring and reporting program,” said Adam Laputz, assistant executive officer at the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency in charge of approving the permit for the program.
Recycled wastewater is commonly used in California for irrigation of city parks, golf courses, ballparks, and other applications. Its use at ski resorts is novel, but many hope it will grow.
“We are sure this will catch the interest of other ski areas as water scarcity increases … the biggest barriers to entry for other ski resorts are the upgrades required to the utilities, and the proximity of the ski areas to these facilities,” Peterson said.
The country’s other example of using recycled wastewater, however, is marred in controversy. In 2012, Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort in Flagstaff, began the first program to use treated wastewater. It drew heavy opposition and a lawsuit from local tribes that opposed the use of treated sewage water on a mountain they considered sacred. The court sided with the ski resort, and the U.S. Forest Service gave its support to recycled water as well.
“Given the long-term water predicament Arizona and other states in the West are facing, using reclaimed water to make snow is an environmentally and economically responsible decision,” according to a statement on the U.S. Forest Service’s website.
Still, Signage Says: Don’t Eat Snow
Due to the water not being classified as potable, the mountain is required to put up signs advising guests not to ingest the snow.
Peterson added that they have similar signage at nearby Boreal Mountain Resort [Boreal owns Soda Springs], where they source snowmaking water from traditional sources, as a precaution against the unknowns in the snowpack.
The snow is still classified as safe to contact and to touch, and both Peterson and Skjelstad are excited the partnership has come to fruition.
“We are very proud to be a part of this,” Skjelstad said. “It’s a great example of a public/private partnership working out.”
To learn more, visit skisodasprings.com/soda.