Mt. Hood Meadows managers have long talked about the ability to influence weather at the ski area during times when Mother Nature isn't cooperating.
Pending Mount Hood National Forest approval, ski area officials could have that power by next ski season.
The National Forest is now considering a Meadows proposal for 10 to 15 snowmaking guns and 45 hydrants, its staff would install throughout the mountain.
"Last season was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back," said Dave Riley, general manager of Mt. Hood Meadows. "We decided we need to do this."
According to the proposal, Meadows would be able to cover up to 30 acres with the snow guns, which cost $23,000 apiece. And Meadows staff would most likely position those guns on the lower base area, on runs such as Buttercup, Easy Rider and Eric's Corner.
Riley estimated the entire system would cost about $2 million, with most of that money invested in infrastructure.
"They would use fan guns, which blow water particles into the air," said Doug Jones, permit specialist for Mount Hood National Forest. "They are pretty much the state of the art. You can stand within 30 feet of them and talk."
The snowmaking system would be especially beneficial to Meadows in ski seasons such as last year's, during which warm fronts closed down the ski area on two separate occasions — once in January and once in February.
Those closures combined with a late December opening to squeeze the 11-lift ski area's days of operation from about 170 down to 109.
Visits plummeted as well last season, from 425,000 in the 2003-2004 season to 170,000 in the 2004-2005 season.
Businesses throughout Hood River County felt the chilling effects.
"The reality is that we've had late openings," Riley said. "But any time we're not open at Thanksgiving, it's bad for the company, bad for our employees, bad for the community."
Usurping Mother Nature's moods, however, doesn't come without impact.
To install the 45 hydrants and the 10 to 15 snow guns, construction crews would have to bury two miles of pressurized steel pipeline — one mile of it would be under a road, the other would be in the mountain along the Buttercup run.
The ability to make snow also requires water, which Meadows would divert from the East Fork of the Hood River to a million-gallon tank that would reach 30 feet high and stretch 28 feet in diameter.
"If they do it," Jones said, "they'll place it out of sight, down by the sewage treatment plant. So it won't be a visual blight."
Meadows applied to the Oregon State Water Source Department for the right to divert 1.1 cubic feet per second of water from the East Fork of the Hood River to supply this tank — roughly one-third to one-half of its average flow. Meadows also stipulated to quit diverting water whenever the East Fork's level drops below the average low flow.
Its water permit season would end before April 15, the beginning of irrigation season for Hood River Valley's orchardists.
"The reality is that it is one of most environmentally responsible snowmaking systems in the entire country, if not the most environmental," Riley said. "It's designed to have minimal impact on natural areas."
In an effort to measure public opinion regarding the proposal, the National Forest on April 4 mailed more than 30 "scoping letters" to organizations, such as Friends of Mount Hood and Mount Hood Meadows.
The National Forest received 131 letters by the April 29 deadline - 119 of which supported the proposal.
Meadows also posted a petition at various locations throughout the ski area during the season. Fifteen hundred skiers and snowboarders signed the petition.
East Fork Irrigation District was one organization that received the scoping letter. But, Riley says, it supported the proposal largely because it stores water in the form of snow, that would end up in the Columbia anyway.