IT'S November, and not a skier is in sight at Sugarbush South, once known as the ``Aspen of the East.'' With its grassy slopes covered by only scattered patches of snow, this once-popular resort won't open until later this season.
Sugarbush South just doesn't have the right white stuff. With only 30 percent snowmaking, it has lost much of its appeal. Competing resorts have anywhere from 80 percent to 100 percent snowmaking, according to Robert Berrey, president of the Sugarbush Resort, which includes Sugarbush South and Sugarbush North ski areas.
``Without [full] snowmaking, most choose to go elsewhere,'' he says.
Mr. Berrey is aiming to change that soon after his resort completes two snowmaking expansion projects totaling $12 million. He and others in the industry know that, even this early in the year, full snow coverage is a must for good business.
But in recent years, water-consuming activities like snowmaking have become contentious issues in the Green Mountain State as environmentalists, ski resorts, and others clash over river-water usage. To address the problem, Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources is drafting a new policy for water withdrawal.
Vermont is not alone in its concern over river water. This concern also has affected ski resorts and other operations in New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Colorado, and California, among other states.
Conservationists argue that water used for snowmaking depletes rivers and hurts aquatic life. Resort owners, however, are trying to expand snowmaking in anticipation of more warm winters.
``Snowmaking has become the standard of the industry,'' Berrey says. ``In the old days, you would have one bad year for every 10 or 20 years. Any business can survive that. But a series of three or four or five years of bad weather in a row can be the end of certain businesses.''
Snowmaking is not new to Vermont's ski industry. It first became popular at resorts in the 1970s. Today, 70 percent of the state's ski trails are covered by man-made snow, says Joseph Parkinson, executive director of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.
But environmentalists don't like what man-made snow does to rivers and streams. They argue that heavy water withdrawals from rivers not only harm aquatic life but also limit recreational sports important to the summer tourist industry, like fishing, canoeing, swimming, and white-water rafting.
``Most people believe that water is an infinite resource, and that we are not creating a problem in our rivers and streams. That simply is not the case,'' says Lewis Milford, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier, Vt.
Ecological interest in the state's rivers comes from a long tradition of environmentalism here. Since the late 1960s, Vermont has used ``tens and probably hundreds of millions'' of state and federal dollars to clean up sewage and debris from its waterways, says Stephen Sease, planning director for Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources. Now that many of the rivers have been cleaned up, however, the emphasis of environmentalists has shifted toward water depletion and nonpoint source pollution, he says.
``We've got beautiful, very high-quality rivers in the state. They form an important part of the state's economy,'' Mr. Sease explains.
Similar arguments are heard in Snowmass Village, Colo., where environmentalists are waging a legal battle against the Aspen Skiing Company, which plans to take water for snowmaking from a nearby creek. Water-withdrawal plans - which amount to 3.5 million gallons per day - would lead to an 11 percent to 63 percent loss of spawning area for brown trout, says Scott Chaplin, a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass.
Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, Vt., and Loon Mountain in Lincoln, N.H., are two more ski resorts that have been involved in water battles.
While river-water depletion has long been a concern, the problem is not entirely due to snowmaking. Water withdrawals for hydroelectric stations, municipalities, and agricultural uses are also responsible for water depletion, environmentalists say.
That's why private conservation groups here in Vermont believe that the state must set a policy to limit all types of water withdrawals from rivers. At issue is how to change the state's current interim policy, which prohibits water withdrawal below what's called the February median flow. Conservationists want to make the policy even more stringent, limiting water withdrawal by a median-flow standard for each month, instead of just based on February flows.
``The winter months are already the lowest flow months, and fish and other creatures in the rivers and streams are already at stressful levels because the water levels are at their lowest,'' Mr. Milford says. ``We need to develop a sustainable flow standard that protects the ecosystem in good times and bad.''
State and federal environmental officials agree that something must be done. The state Agency of Natural Resources hopes to come up with its policy draft within a couple of weeks. But a finalized version is not expected until spring or summer, due to a public-hearing and legislative-approval process.
Berrey, nevertheless, remains optimistic. Last summer, his resort negotiated deals with environmental and recreational groups for two snowmaking projects at Sugarbush South.
Specifically, the resort agreed to move one of its original water-withdrawal sites further down Clay Brook, where the water is deeper. The plan also provided that the resort build a larger water-storage pond at its Mad River withdrawal site, so that less water would be taken during low-flow periods.
``There has to be a sensible way in which we can allow the economy and these jobs and this outdoor recreational opportunity to proceed with proper environmental protection,'' Berrey says.