Snow doubt? Dry summer's impact on Wintergreen
After nearly two months without widespread sustained rainfall in Nelson County– and with ski season's opening Thanksgiving weekend looming on the horizon– some local skiers and snowboarders have been quaking in their plastic boots and wondering if there will be enough water to cover the slopes in manmade powder.
As of October 18, Wintergreen's water supply was down to 36.5 million gallons, or 38 percent of its 96 million-gallon capacity. Much of the once-muddy bottom of Lake Monacan, the 40-million-gallon main reservoir for the resort and the 2100 houses in it, was dry clay.
"That's as low as I've seen it in 15 years," says Henri Weems, a weekend resident of Nellysford. "The level was at least seven or eight feet below the water mark on the pier."
Wintergreen owns the lakes on its land and the water in them, but under a legally binding agreement with the county, the resort must maintain 52 million gallons on reserve for the fire department and other users.
As the water line crept lower, Nelson County Service Authority director Tim Castillo imposed restrictions on all Nelsonians, including the operation at Wintergreen.
"We were at Stage 4 of our action plan, which is the most serious," Castillo says. "All outdoor uses– maintenance for the golf courses, any kind of irrigation– were prohibited."
Wintergreen, Castillo notes, was "in danger of losing their greens, fairways, everything."
Then, on October 19, the skies finally opened up and, according to the weather center at the Wintergreen Nature Foundation, a total of 6.16 inches of rain fell over the next eight days, restoring the water level in Lake Monacan to just six inches below capacity and the overall water supply to 120 million gallons by Wintergreen's count.
But since that time, no measurable precipitation has fallen on Nelson County. And that raises the question, is one gullywasher enough to sustain manmade snow production for an entire ski season?
While he wouldn't disclose the amount of water it takes to cover the slopes in the homemade white stuff, Wintergreen slope services manager Scott Gunnell says the resort has more than enough water to sustain snow production through the winter.
"We have 6,000 acres of watershed, all of which feeds directly into one lake," he says. "Over that watershed, we got 160 million gallons of rain in that storm, so local skiers and snowboarders should have no fear; we will have a ski season."
However, George Nicklas, president of Meadowbrook Associates– the company that maintains and operates the resort's water system– says that he's not yet ready to declare Wintergreen out of the woods.
"Typically, snow is made to start the season, and then some of it melts, and it has to be replaced," he explains. "Sometimes it's cold enough to just have to put it down one time, like in 1976, when it opened. If that were to happen again, they have a sufficient supply of water right now. If not, then it's probably not sufficient."
Still, Nicklas says that in his 30 years of working with Wintergreen, he recalls only one instance when a lack of water jeopardized the ski season.
"Ten or fifteen years ago, we had another drought situation right at the beginning of the season," he says. "But the temperatures were optimal for the amount of water we had to make snow, and soon the rain came, so the impact was minimal."
Whether there's enough water to cover the mountain in powder is a question that not only concerns the skiers, but also local realtors trying to sell houses on the mountain.
"Ski season has a significant effect on the real estate market up there," says local assessor Ivo Romenesko. "The views are one thing, but the ski season itself adds vitality to the community and brings in revenue for restaurants, the winter garden, and a lot of other businesses around the resort. Without the ski slopes, you take away that vitality."
Castillo says that Nelson County's drought action plan doesn't address snow production, but that he doesn't foresee snow making putting a great strain on the water supply.
"Historically, it hasn't been a problem," he says. "When it comes time to make snow, the fall and winter rains have usually showed up, and the need for putting that in the action plan is not perceived because Wintergreen has such a large drainage basin."
Author and conservationist Marlene Condon says that while she has not followed Wintergreen's situation closely, it might be too soon to be talking about engineering snow when the local watershed has been so low so.
"Even after the most recent rain, streams near my house have either gone dry again or have not yet begun to flow," says Condon, who lives in western Albemarle County. "For some of them, that hasn't happened in the 20 years I've lived here. It's terrifying."
The science behind the scare is that streams are like the proverbial tip of the groundwater iceberg.
"If a stream stops flowing, it means the underground water level has dropped lower," says Condon, "and that is a sign of less water in that area."
Gunnell asserts that even though making snow requires water, it has practically no net impact on Wintergreen's supply of H2o.
"Every ounce of snow we make melts and goes back into the lake," he says.
Condon says that's not entirely accurate.
"Almost 50 percent of that will evaporate into the atmosphere," she says, "and whether what does melt makes it back into the groundwater depends on whether it's just rolling off the rocks or if the soil is actually absorbing it."
To meet the extra water demand that golf courses and ski slopes require, Castillo says Nelson County is looking into what it would take to build a $12 million reservoir next to Lake Monacan near adjacent Rodes Farm.
"It's in the very preliminary stages," he says, "but this would hold the 52 million gallons necessary to have on reserve for drinking and fire protection. A lot of questions need to be answered, and it would probably be at least two years before any dirt is turned."
Nicklas says that such a reservoir would have been a significant help in the most recent drought situation.
"I can't say for certain, but we probably wouldn't have had the restrictions on outside water usage," he says.
Additional reservoir or not, Condon says the real effects of snow production may not be felt until next summer.
"If they suck the reservoirs dry this winter, and spring rains don't come, they're going to be in tough shape in the summer," she says.