Water Hogs on the Ski Slopes

Snow Cannons Drink Up As Attention Is Turned To Globe's Rising Thirst

Wall Street Journal
January 23, 2008

DAVOS, Switzerland -- The chief executives of Coca-Cola Co., Nestlé SA and others will warn the World Economic Forum in Davos this week that the world is running out of water, threatening conflict, higher prices and lost production.

Some will likely then strap on skis to take advantage of the Swiss resort's glistening slopes. But the pistes of the Alps are also contributing to the world's water woes.

Europe's ski resorts have been racing to install snow-making machines to bed the slopes with artificial snow as snowfall becomes less reliable and resorts compete with one another to offer guaranteed good skiing. That is great for skiers and businesses that rely on them, but not so great for local water supplies.

Should Davos-man feel guilty about going skiing? "Well, yes," said Christian Rixen, a Davos-based biologist who cowrote the report. He added that skiers should add to the area's development by coming in summer, too.

Swiss ski resorts, which tend to be at higher elevations and have reliable snow cover, still have relatively few snow cannons, covering around 19% of all slopes. That compares with 50% coverage in Austria and 100% in some Italian ski areas. Across the Alps, snow-making machines now suck up nearly as much water as Vienna, a city of 1.7 million people, says Josef Essl, in charge of land-use planning and nature conservation at the Innsbruck-based Austrian Alpine Association.

In dry years, some Alpine villages have to get their water from fire trucks because mountain reservoirs are dry, says Mr. Essl. Though a growing problem for the Alps, snow cannons are a localized and minor issue in the bigger picture of water shortage, experts say.

Davos organizers say this is the first year they have managed to get member companies interested in battling future water shortages, because they have recognized the problem as a potential threat to prices, production and economic growth, as well as a cause of human suffering. Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo Inc., British brewer SABMiller PLC and Dow Chemical Co. are among corporations that signed up to an appeal planned for release at this year's forum aimed at driving up water productivity.

Based on current usage patterns, about 30 countries will be short of water by 2025, according to the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, a nonprofit supported by 60 governments. That is mainly because most irrigation for agriculture is inefficient, while demand for meat, wheat and other high-protein foods that require a lot of water is growing rapidly as people in China and India become wealthier and more urban.

But the battle against climate change is sucking up water, too, creating what analysts in the field call an accelerator effect. Take biofuels, produced to cut use of fossil fuels such as gasoline that spew the carbon dioxide that causes global warming. Biofuels are mostly made from crops that have to be grown, which puts pressure on land and food prices, as well as on water resources. It takes on average 1,000 liters (260 gallons) of water to make one liter of ethanol-based biofuel, according to the IWMI. For gasoline, it takes 2.5 liters.

The same goes for some of the alternatives to coal-fired power plants that produce less carbon dioxide. Hydroelectric power requires large quantities of water. So do the cooling systems in nuclear-power plants. Clean-coal technologies, too, use more water than regular coal. Overall, industry accounts for around 23% of global fresh water use, compared with around 70% for agriculture and 7% for residential use. Demand is rising in all three areas.

"Some people call water the oil of the 21st century. Whether you like that description or not, one thing is clear, availability of water will be a key driver in the development of the world's economy and government policies in the next decade," said Andrew N. Liveris, chairman and chief executive of Dow Chemical, in a statement.

The Alps face a problem as snow coverage falls. Last year was so warm that organizers at the World Cup downhill races at Wengen, Switzerland, added fertilizer to the snow to slow its melting. This year, the snow in the Alps is good -- but the snow cannons still pump out artificial snow at much the same rate, padding the slopes just in case there is a thaw.

Snow cannons take water, supercool it and spray it out over the ski runs. You need to build pipes up the mountainsides to bring water to cement storage tanks, and pipes to take it to the snow cannons.

Scientists predict that lower resorts will have to be abandoned by 2030 anyhow, as rising temperatures lift the snowline and make it harder for snow machines to operate. The skiers will leave, but not the pipes and cement.

Some resorts use water laced with Pseudomonas syringae, a bacteria produced as Snowmax by Denver-based York Snow Inc. Snowmax enables water to crystallize into snow at higher temperatures, by acting as an agent for the crystals to form around.

For towns such as Davos that rely on tourism for 40% of their annual income, snow cannons are attractive. According to Mr. Rixen's report, artificial snow can secure an estimated 10% of the local community's income in winters that provide low snow coverage. From a near standing start in 1990, snow cannons are spreading across the Alps "and there's no end in sight," says Mr. Rixen. Davos is unlikely to have to abandon ski runs or suffer water shortage -- unlike Scuol, another Swiss resort the study looked at, says Mr. Rixen. The ski slopes at Davos are relatively high and the town has a large reservoir nearby from which to pump the extra water needed.

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