Should El Niño not live up to the hype and dump heavy snow on the Sierra, skiers and sledders at one resort could be gliding downhill this winter on snow that comes from an unusual source: purified water from the local sewage-treatment plant.
In a testament to how water-dependent industries are adapting amid California’s four-year drought, Soda Springs Mountain Resort this winter will be the first in California to use recycled wastewater for its snow-making system. The water will come from a nearby Donner Summit Public Utility District treatment plant that just received a $24 million upgrade.
Managers at the resort and water district officials assured customers Monday that the snow will be made from “pathogen-free, crystal clear,” highly treated water and that the recycled product actually will be safer than man-made snow transformed from surface water.
Nonetheless, because it’s not officially designated as tap water, there will be signs warning against ingesting the snow, similar to the warning placards used when public parks and golf courses irrigate with recycled water.
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“Recycled water is strictly monitored by state and federal agencies and meets the highest quality of treated water in the state of California,” said Amy Ohran, the resort’s general manager. “Our messaging is really that snow should not be ingested, whether it’s natural snowfall, man-made from untreated surface water or man-made from recycled-water facilities. From a personal standpoint, this is water that we know has been treated and that we trust, where surface water, there are unknowns.”
The use of recycled irrigation water for parks and landscaping has become commonplace across California. Using it on ski slopes, where skiers inevitably are in prolonged and close contact with the snow, is far more novel.
In 2012, the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort switched to treated wastewater for making its snow, despite complaints from local Indian tribes and some environmental groups, according to news reports. The U.S. Forest Service gave its blessing, saying the treated water was safe and provided the least-harmful alternative.
“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,” the Forest Service says on its website.
Ohran, who also manages Boreal Mountain Resort, said she expects other resorts to follow Soda Springs’ lead. The drought, she said, has resort operators looking for more reliable supplies of water to make snow when the natural stuff doesn’t fall.
“As far as water resources go, recycled water is really the most drought-resistant source of water available,” she said.
The partnership is also a point of pride for the Donner Summit utility, which, in one high-demand year, sent the resort nearly 3 million gallons of tap water to spray onto the slopes, said Tom Skjelstad, the utility district’s general manager.
“I’m not beating my own drum, but it will get people to think outside of golf courses, ballparks, etc.” he said. “So that’s what I think our largest contribution is: ‘Hey, look at what this small little community did.’ ”
State officials offered kudos, noting that the use of recycled water would help ensure more water is left in one of the region’s key scenic rivers.
“Congratulations to Soda Springs ski resort and Donner Summit PUD for making good use of treated wastewater,” Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency, said in an email. “The partnership will benefit first skiers then fish and wildlife along the South Yuba River. It’s a good way to stretch supplies for us and the environment.”
Skjelstad noted one drawback to the system: The amount of recycled water available for the resort in a given year will depend on how much wastewater flows into the Donner treatment plant. The small utility treats sewage for fewer than 250 residential customers, four resorts and a couple of rest areas along Interstate 80.
“If the ski areas are open, our wastewater treatment flows go up (because) more people are on the hill,” he said. “If our ski areas aren’t open, our flows stay lower. We won’t have as much to send up to Soda Springs.”