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Monday, October 17, 2016

As dry spell continues, ski areas prep to keep snow flowing this season

By DON HIMSEL
Staff Writer

The state's drought has some wringing their hands, including some area ski industry professionals. But moves in the industry have been made to make sure they're in as good a position as possible.

At Pats Peak in Henniker, a popular destination for southern New Hampshire skiers and snowboarders, general manager Kris Blomback said its snowmaking system gets "a healthy dose of capital" every year. ...

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The state's drought has some wringing their hands, including some area ski industry professionals. But moves in the industry have been made to make sure they're in as good a position as possible.

At Pats Peak in Henniker, a popular destination for southern New Hampshire skiers and snowboarders, general manager Kris Blomback said its snowmaking system gets "a healthy dose of capital" every year.

"It could have been tough had overall the industry not modernized 20 or so years ago," he said, adding that the upgrades have allowed them to "ride out storms."

Data from a Plymouth State University study shows over $350 million was spent in and around Granite State ski areas in the 2012-2013 season. That spending makes a huge impact in the state's North Country, and additional spending indirectly associated with ski activity brings even more money to the state.

Storms are exactly what the ski industry needs, as the much-talked-about lack of precipitation means tough sledding, literally, for winter sports enthusiasts.

Blomback called the modernization as "insurance against foul weather."

Pats Peak will pump an average of 60 million gallons of water a year for its snowmaking operation, which Blomback said returns to the same watershed it came from.

Pats Peak has 100 percent snowmaking. The system, Blomback said, receives "about a quarter of a million to half a million of love every year. It's the lifeblood of what we do."

Blomback said in the 1960s snowmaking was a novelty, with only about 30 percent of a mountain's terrain covered. That steadily increased through the 1990s. Now, he said, the norm is to have 80 percent to 100 percent coverage.

"Most ski areas have significant reservoir capacity to buffer up against the mood swings of mother nature," Blomback added. "We've invested heavily in reservoir systems to buffer against those mood swings."

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates the lower half of the state to be in a "persistent drought" through the end of December.

Pats Peak's engineering work has been done to make sure they use their resources as efficiently as possible, according to Blomback.

"For energy consumption, we've cut our footprint 80-to-90 percent in some of the equipment we're using," he said.

In Danbury, work began in September at Ragged Mountain to increase water storage in its lower pond from 4 million gallons to 24 million gallons.

At Manchester's McIntyre Ski Area, vice president and general manager Ross Boisvert said it's a "do or die" situation this season.

Boisvert characterized last season as "awful," having only been able to host skiers from January to mid March. Though Manchester is in the middle of the state's drought-stricken area, at this point he said the situation isn't squeezing him.

McIntyre will use about 6 million gallons over the entire ski season. Boisvert said the city uses about 15 million gallons per day.

"The amount we draw over the snowmaking season is minimal compared to what's drawn on a daily basis for the city of Manchester," he said. "We haven't been given a warning at this point. I don't anticipate an issue, but who knows."

At Cannon Mountain, there has been a big push to make systems across the board more energy-efficient, particularly for snowmaking.

Their spring-fed pond is full, said marketing director Greg Keeler.

"Right now, there are no water concerns," he said. "October and November are two of our rainier months. It recharges pretty well," he said.

Keeler added that there is a $5.1 million-dollar energy efficiency project currently being implemented all over the facility.

He said the big cost is electricity used to generate air in the snowmaking process. Keeler said new snow guns can be 171 times more efficient than the ones they are replacing.

Though there are several variables involved in the process of making snow, Keeler said "we estimate saving up to 30 percent in energy costs this year and are using water more efficiently."

In Henniker, Blomback said his mountain's system will be "pretty good from right out of the gate because of capacity."

"It's a little too early to sweat bullets. One thing about the current drought conditions, in the driest counties, the seacoast, there are no ski areas there. The drought lessens its grip as you head up to the north country. Those areas will start making snow in about four to six weeks. Down country, we'll start probably in another six to eight weeks."

Blomback remains "cautiously optimistic."

"We still have some time," he said

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590, dhimsel@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DonH.