Water Conservation in Ski Resorts: What’s Being Done

Skiing and environmental responsibility can be uneasy bedfellows. It’s a sport where an understanding and love of the natural world is inherent to its existence, yet also one that has potential to cause harm to the very thing that makes it possible. Ski companies, resorts and villages are very aware of this dichotomy, and many are making positive steps to mitigate the damage.

Water conservation is a hot topic in tourist resorts across the world. Seasonal surges in visitor numbers, provision of facilities such as pools and spas, as well the demands of the hospitality industry all put pressure on beleaguered water supplies. Add in aspects that are unique to ski resorts, such as snow making, and it's clear why water conservation is at the forefront of the mind of so many resorts and ski villages.

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The Need for Water Conservation in Ski Resorts

Resort operations and snowmaking mean the volume of water used by ski resorts is significant; for example it’s estimated that snowmaking in France uses as much water as a town of 170,000 inhabitants.

A study by the University of Basel shows, as the volumes of visitors increase and facilities become more sophisticated (think of all those irresistible balcony hot tubs) then water consumption has potential to reach to reach record levels

“Resorts situated below 1,800-2,000m (5,900-6,600ft), will increasingly have to rely on artificial snow to keep just their higher ski slopes open for up to 100 consecutive days, while their lower slopes may not be possible to save. This would raise their water consumption by 79% by 2100. During an average winter towards the end of the century, a resort would consume about 540 million litres (119 million gallons) of water, compared to today's 300 million litres (66 million gallons). In the French Alps, water consumption could increase ninefold by 2100.”BBC Future Planet

Water consumption isn’t just about snow making. More people means more water for everyday life as well for the slopes and spas. Local communities feel the pressure as much as tourist hubs and this combination is strengthening resolve to manage water consumption as people understand that the preservation of clean water sources is vital to safeguard public health, support biodiversity, and sustain the ecosystem.

Current Water Conservation Measures

The good news is that many resorts and communities are taking positive action to manage water consumption, with many ski areas implementing some if not all of the steps outlined below.

Snowmaking Efficiency

Advancements in snowmaking technology have revolutionised the industry by enabling ski resorts to produce snow more efficiently while minimising water usage.

One of the most significant is the development of automated snowmaking systems which optimise snow production based on real-time weather conditions. These systems work by monitoring factors such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed before adjusting snowmaking parameters to maximise efficiency and reduce water waste.

The systems are able to switch to a special low energy mode when there’s more snowfall, so water and energy consumption is kept to a minimum whenever possible.

Physical changes are also present, with development of nozzles that produce smaller, more uniform snow particles which allow for more efficient coverage, with significantly less water consumption.

Recycle and Reuse

Recycling and reusing water is one of the most effective ways to manage consumption. Harvesting and treating grey water for use in functions like flushing toilets and irrigation offers a practical and cost effective solution.

Greywater recycling systems typically involve several stages of treatment, including filtration, disinfection, and sometimes advanced processes like reverse osmosis or UV sterilization to ensure water quality meets safety standards.

By diverting greywater away from the sewage system and repurposing it onsite, resorts can significantly reduce their freshwater consumption.

Alongside increased use of greywater recycling, many ski resorts are implementing innovative techniques to capture and reuse meltwater. This meltwater can then be reused in snowmaking. There’s another conundrum here of course – chemicals used in snowmaking render meltwater unsafe to consume but whilst people still want to ski (and resorts need to thrive) this cycle will continue.

Reusing the meltwater goes some way to redress the balance.

Water Management Practices

Resorts are keen to manage their water effectively. Taking France as an example guidance issued by Flocon Vert makes suggestions for several ways resorts can improve and reduce their water usage.

Best practice includes the adoption of initiatives such as rainwater harvesting, efficient irrigation and water saving fixtures.

Rainwater harvesting

Ski resorts employ various methods to harvest rainwater. Familiar hardware such as gutters and downspouts are used to direct rainwater into storage tanks or cisterns. Once collected, the rainwater undergoes filtration and treatment processes to ensure it meets quality standards.

The harvested rainwater can then be used for a variety of purposes such as irrigation for landscaping as well as snowmaking.

Water saving fixtures

Water-saving fixtures are another important part of the battle to reduce water consumption. By choosing to use a water saving device, resort facilities can make a positive change with minimum compromise.

  • Low-flow toilets

These toilets use less water per flush compared to traditional models, reducing water usage without sacrificing performance. They typically feature efficient flushing mechanisms and smaller tank capacities.

  • Water-efficient taps and showerheads

This type of tap or showerhead is equipped with an aerator, to mix air with water. This maintains strong water pressure while reducing flow rates.

  • Sensor-operated fixtures

Sensor-operated taps, toilets, and urinals automatically control water flow based on user activity. This helps minimise water waste by ensuring that water is only used when needed.

Education and Awareness

Education and awareness are key elements of success for any water conservation effort. Resorts implement measures such as prominent signage that details practical tips and reminders for saving water, as well as more structured measures such as training sessions and education about the benefits of active conservation.

Campaigns to raise awareness of water consumption play an active role in making sure simple actions such as not leaving taps running, or taking shorter showers become second nature. By demonstrating sound effort at the top, resorts can foster a collaborative approach in which visitors, residents and corporations all work together to preserve the mountains they love.

Challenges Faced by Ski Resorts

Implementation of water conservation measures presents operational and financial challenges for ski resorts as they seek to balance the need for sustainability with the demands of snow production and guest experience.

One of the primary challenges is the initial investment that’s needed to upgrade to more efficient water-saving technologies. Installation of advanced snowmaking systems, retrofitting facilities with water-saving fixtures, and implementing rainwater harvesting systems all cost money.

Resort operators must carefully manage water resources to meet the demands of snowmaking while minimising waste and maximising efficiency.

Resorts have to strike a balance to maximise water conservation without reducing enjoyment.

Steps such as adaptation of snowmaking schedules, optimisation of water use in facilities, and coordination of conservation efforts all work together to ensure visitors experience minimum disruption to their time in the mountains.

A long term viewpoint

While water saving technologies should lead to long-term savings in water and energy expenses, factors such as local water rates, climate conditions, and the scale of implementation will impact this return. Resorts may need to conduct thorough cost-benefit analyses to determine the financial feasibility of conservation initiatives and support implementation.

By adopting efficient technologies, optimising snowmaking operations, and balancing conservation efforts with operational needs, resorts can minimise their environmental footprint, reduce operating costs, and ensure the long-term viability of the ski industry.

Success Stories and Case Studies

Many resorts are making significant changes to their practice to help support effective water management. In the French Alps Les Arcs has adopted several measures to reduce water consumption and promote sustainability including the use of reclaimed water for snowmaking. 

Wastewater recycling systems collect and treat greywater, which is reused in snow making and by combining this with investment in energy-efficient snow cannons and automated snowmaking systems the resort has been able to decrease its water and energy usage while ensuring quality snow coverage on its slopes.

Les Arcs has been recognized for its commitment to sustainability, including obtaining environmental certifications such as the "Flocon Vert" label.

Another excellent example of positive change can be seen at Aspen Snowmass. This cherished ski area has taken similar steps to ensure snowmaking has minimum impact on these incredible slopes. Whilst climate change means snowmaking is needed, especially at peak periods, by using top technology, the impact of this is minimised. 

“Thankfully, snowmaking has become vastly more energy efficient over the past twenty years. Whereas old snow guns drew 96 kW of electricity, new ones that make the same amount of snow draw just 4 kW. By building out water storage as part of the plan, we will further minimize the impact of snowmaking on Snowmass Creek, while also ensuring the ability to make snow quickly and at large scale during cold snaps, another efficiency that water storage helps achieve.”The Aspen Snowmass Master Development plan

The Role of Regulations and Certifications

The role of regulation and certification is two-fold. Firstly, regulation offers a framework for resorts to work towards, with clear goals and standards to uphold. Resorts know what they need to work towards, and visitors know what to look for to ensure they are choosing a resort that will not compromise their own desire to be a responsible tourist.

A superb example of this is the Flocon Vert. This initiative was set up by the Mountain Riders association which campaigns to raise environmental awareness across the French alps. To receive the Flocon Vert a resort must demonstrate the resort meets the following criteria:

  • Actively encourages others to protect the environment 
  • Strives to implement sustainable and inclusive developments 
  • Protects the quality of natural settings and landscapes
  • Promotes sustainable transport to get to and get around the resort
  • Supports and showcases local producers
  • Promotes tourism that is accessible to all
  • Protects and showcases its local heritage 

Water conservation falls into several of these criteria, such as protection of natural settings and landscapes, encouragement to protect the environment and striving to implement sustainable development.

Many resorts offer similar initiatives. Sustainable Slopes are an active force for change in the US, while individual resorts will offer their own set of standards on a smaller scale.

Future Directions in Water Conservation

Future developments in water conservation are likely to revolve around increased use of technological advances for aspects such as snowmaking alongside more grassroots initiatives to raise awareness and action when it comes to how visitors and communities use water.

As climate change continues, habits will need to change, and a collaborative approach will ensure everyone can continue to enjoy the mountains for years to come.

Smart monitoring systems will enable real-time tracking of water usage, while water recycling and reuse systems will maximise efficiency. Resorts will prioritise water-efficient infrastructure and facilities, supported by education and awareness programs for staff and guests. Regulatory compliance and certification will ensure alignment with environmental standards to shape a future where ski resorts operate sustainably and responsibly, working to minimise their water footprint while providing exceptional guest experiences.

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Conclusion: A Commitment to Sustainability

For skiing to remain viable, effective water management is essential. Every aspect of the industry has a role to play, and local communities and visitors are key in supporting these new initiatives.

By conserving water, ski resorts can minimise their environmental impact, ensure long-term viability, and maintain the pristine natural beauty of mountain environments.

Through collaborative efforts, the ski industry can preserve water resources, safeguard ecosystems, and continue to provide memorable experiences for everyone who works, lives and visits these irreplaceable places.