Summit County, CO, Sept. 28--A move by Keystone Resort to up its snowmaking water diversions from the Snake River will undergo public review after all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided last week.
The resort drew fire from environmentalists and regulatory agencies last spring when it asked the Corps to change a 1985 permit for the diversion without public notice. Currently, Keystone can take up to 550 acre feet from the river. With the proposed change, that amount could increase by 245 percent, to 1,350 acre feet.
An acre foot equals about 325,000 gallons - enough to cover one acre with one foot of water, or to supply a family of four for a year. During peak snowmaking season last year, Keystone at times diverted about half the river's total flow. The Summit County ski area operates one of the country's largest snowmaking systems, covering about 860 acres with man-made white.
Keystone owns water rights to 1,350 acre feet, and the resort argued that the change -- which wouldn't require any additional construction or result in any new wetlands impacts -- didn't require additional review.
Keystone Resort chief John Rutter asked for the modification in a letter to the Corps last April, writing that, "Keystone shares the Corps' view that this minor modification of the permit may be handled informally by mutual agreement and that in light of earlier public review, additional public review is not required."
But the push to change the permit without public notice drew a pointed response from environmental groups concerned with water quality issues. Abandoned mines high in the drainage leach toxic heavy metals -- including lead, cadmium and zinc - into the river, in concentrations exceeding federal and state standards. Any change in the stream flow regime in the Snake could potentially affect those concentrations downstream.
Conservation groups, along with federal, state and regional regulatory agencies, called on the Corps to evaluate those potential impacts from increased diversions in a public process. Allowing public comment would best serve the public interest, the EPA stated in a letter to the Corps.
"It seems Keystone wants this whole issue swept under the rug, perhaps because it's a major change that could have significant impacts on the Snake River system," Land and Water Fund attorney Ted Zukoski said last July. "Increases in snowmaking threaten some of the state's most precious fisheries," Trout Unlimited attorney Melinda Kassen said. "The notion that the Corps would proceed to change Keystone's permit without public comment is truly distressing," she added.
Now, after several months of internal wrangling, the Corps has decided to take public comment on the permit change. "We reissued a public notice because the original permit didn't address the impacts of the larger diversion," said Jim Taylor, spokesperson with the agency's district engineers office in Sacramento, Calif.
The U.S. Forest Service would also analyze the impacts of any significant increases in snowmaking activities at Keystone, and the resort will augment Snake River flows with clean water to ensure that state-mandated minimum stream flows are met at all times.