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Elite ski resort to begin recycling wastewater into snow: 'We hope that we can show other ski areas ... what is possible'

"We might be the first, but I hope we aren't the last."

"We might be the first, but I hope we aren't the last."

Photo Credit: iStock

We've always been told not to eat the yellow snow, and while that advice is still good, the relationship between snow and sewage is changing. 

As covered by Montana Free Press, the elite Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Montana, which has long been known for its roster of famous members, has become known for something new. The resort has become the first ski area in the state to turn wastewater into snow.

While the thought of skiing on what was once sewage may have many turning up their noses, the Free Press reports that resort officials and local conservation groups said it's fully treated and thus both safe and beneficial to the environment. 

A company backed by Bill Gates is even turning wastewater into drinkable beer in a process that would mirror what would be necessary in outer space. So soon, a day on the slopes followed by a beer in the lodge may be brought to you entirely by wastewater. (Hooray beer?)

The Yellowstone Club, along with the Gallatin River Task Force and Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), started studying whether wastewater could be used to make fake snow in 2011 — the idea being that they could serve skiers and the watershed by making snow from treated water that would otherwise be dumped into rivers and other bodies of water. 

It worked. In 2020, the Yellowstone Club applied for a permit from the DEQ to expand the pilot program into a permanent snowmaking operation. 

The DEQ issued the permit in 2021, allowing an annual 25 million gallons of wastewater — 80% of which comes from the community of Big Sky and 20% from the Yellowstone Club — to be turned into snow. Finally, after a $12 million investment from the club itself, the system started making snow in November of 2023. 

Over a dozen ski areas worldwide have used wastewater to make snow. As the effects of our rapidly overheating planet become more extreme, leading to droughts and increasingly unseasonably warm and dry winters, the practice will likely become more common — especially in areas like the Sierra Nevada, where they are seeing much less snow than usual. 

While some environmental groups raised concerns about how the recycled snow could affect aquatic life in the area, Richard Chandler, vice president of environmental operations for the Yellowstone Club, hoped to alleviate those concerns, stating that passing the treated snow through the snow-making equipment treats the water again, making it even cleaner. 

He further said that the compacted snow will last longer into the warmer months, adding water to the aquifer at a critical time and helping streamflows later in the season. Other significant groups are fully supportive of the project. 

"This proposal is the first permit of its kind in Montana," said Jon Kenning, DEQ water protection bureau chief. "It has the potential to provide increased protection for streams while also providing a necessary function for the Yellowstone Club." 

"The benefits of this project are actually an enhancement to the watershed function," Pat Byorth, Montana water director for Trout Unlimited, stated in a press release, as reported by the Free Press. "It's an enhancement to water supply, to water quality in the basin. So everybody from skiers to anglers will benefit from this, and downstream agriculture benefits at a time where water supply is uncertain." 

"We hope that we can show other ski areas in the state what is possible," Chandler said. "We might be the first, but I hope we aren't the last."

As for the "yellow snow" of it all, as part of its permit, the Yellowstone Club must put up signs warning visitors not to eat the snow.

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