How the Ski Industry Impacts Natural Watersheds

Skiing is one of Idaho’s most popular winter activities, but the sport has a palpable impact on the state’s natural watersheds. Researchers have yet to study Idaho-specific resorts and watersheds, but two seminal studies—one in New Mexico, the other in Vermont—work to unpack the potentially devastating effect the ski industry can have on watersheds. To that end, ski resorts can wreak havoc on additional facets of the environment—from wildlife and flora to high carbon emissions and irresponsible water use.


The first study to examine the ecological impact of the ski industry was conducted in 1987 by researchers in Taos, New Mexico. These scientists were working to understand how Taos Ski Valley affected the Rio Hondo watershed. They found the primary impact of ski resort development to be river water quality on biota and downstream agriculture. The secondary impact concerned land and water rights ownership and use within the watershed. The study concludes that, while the long-term impact of ski resort development is uncertain, expansion and technological advances will threaten surface water quality for downstream community resource domains and irrigation agriculture. Though the researchers’ methods were limited (1987 is hardly “current”), their results point to the potential harm caused to natural watersheds by the ski industry.


A second study, conducted in Vermont in 2007, shows a causal relationship between ski area development and mountain watershed harm. The first of its kind, this research studied side-by-side watersheds on Mount Mansfield. Their results showed a higher water volume from the developed watershed. Additionally, this developed watershed had a higher amount of chloride and sediment. This suggests that developers may underestimate the effects of resort development on the area’s water resources. The researchers conclude that ski resort development may have a more pronounced impact on the local watershed than timber extraction—the standard for understanding the impact of development on watersheds.


Ski resorts are known to put local watersheds at risk, and now we have quantitative proof to back up the claim. However, the impacts may be more severe than even the aforementioned researchers anticipated. Climate change has shortened the winters experienced at may ski areas, driving resorts to generate more artificial snow. This substance is made by mixing large amounts of water with high-pressure air. Modern snowmaking equipment can easily require 100 gallons of water per minute for a single snow gun. At Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, a relatively small resort in Massachusetts, snowmaking can pull as much as 4,200 gallons of water each minute.


The climate is changing, and ski resorts are failing to apply environmentally conscious adaption strategies. With more websites working to make Idaho skiing accessible to people across the country, we expect to see more ski tourists and ski area development. We are reaching a critical mass, and Idaho ski resorts will need to change swiftly and consciously if we are to save our wilderness and watershed.