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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New era for nonprofit Bogus Basin includes snowmaking, summer activities - and sustainability

Brad Wilson, general manager of Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, stands in front of recently acquired snow-making machines during a tour of the facility, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. (Brian Myrick / Idaho Press)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

When Chris Bromley moved to Idaho from Colorado in 2001 and started skiing at Bogus Basin, the former competitive ski racer turned prominent water rights attorney couldn’t understand why the nonprofit ski resort didn’t do more snowmaking.

“Snowmaking is super important for ski areas,” Bromley said. “I’d look around and scratch my head and wonder why there wasn’t more snowmaking at Bogus.”

Bromley said he looked at it and thought about it for years, not only while skiing on the mountain in the winter but also while mountain-biking in the spring and hiking in the fall.

“There’s always water flowing up there,” he said. “Conventional thought was there wasn’t any water at Bogus, and they can’t make snow because they didn’t have any water – and I never believed that to be true, because I could see it with my own eyes.”

Bromley knocked on Brad Wilson’s office door with an idea three years ago, and today, Bogus is constructing a 50-foot-deep pond to hold the 13 million gallons of water that will run into a newly approved snow-making system, allowing it to coat several front-side runs with enough snow to guarantee a Christmas holiday opening every year, once it’s fully up and running.

“That’s absolutely crucial for our sustainability,” said Wilson, Bogus Basin general manager. “Last year, we didn’t get open until the 26th of December – we missed a full week. That set us back a million dollars, just in that short period of time.”

And that’s just one part of Bogus Basin’s plans for sustainability that’s newly on track. This year, for the first year ever, the mountain opened up seven days a week for summer activities, from a new mountain coaster – one of just 35 in the United States – to lift-served mountain biking and hiking, to activities like bungee-trampoline, summer tubing, concerts, races and a climbing wall. The idea was to generate revenue year-round, not just during the ski season, and attract more of the Treasure Valley’s population up to the mountain. And it worked.

A portion of the mountain coaster ride stands at the Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. (Brian Myrick / Idaho Press)
A portion of the mountain coaster ride stands at the Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. (Brian Myrick / Idaho Press)

“It’s been extremely successful,” Wilson said. “It’s doing exactly what we hoped it would do, and more importantly to the overall health of Bogus Basin, it’s attracting a whole new customer base.”

Bogus Basin brought in $1 million in revenue this summer, with operating costs far below its winter levels. Rides on the mountain coaster averaged 500 a day on weekdays and 1,500 on weekends – hitting the resort’s goal from its master plan of an average of 720 rides per day.

Just 7-10 percent of the population skis or snowboards, Wilson said. “That leaves a big chunk of the population that’s not been coming up here – there was no reason to come up here. We’ve now created that.”

Wilson said he initially figured the resort’s winter season passholders would be the main summer visitors; each was offered a single free day of unlimited activities, plus a summer-season chairlift pass. But fewer than 2,000 of the 25,000 passholders used that single-day activity pass.

“We saw a completely new user base: Non-season pass holders, and presumably non-skiers and -snowboarders,” Wilson said. “Our hopes and dreams are that they will return in the winter time and they’ll learn to ski and snowboard. That’s really our mission.”

But that doesn’t work without snow – and Mother Nature sometimes doesn’t deliver for Bogus. Missing the winter holidays, when kids are out of school and ski lessons and other operations are in full swing, can mean the difference between a balanced budget and a loss for the community-owned resort.

Bromley, who represented the Idaho Department of Water Resources on major water law cases as a deputy Idaho attorney general for a decade before co-founding his own water-law practice, relied on the snow at Bogus himself, both as a skier and as the dad of a ski-racing daughter, who’s now 12 years old.

“I love the mountain,” he said. “It’s a treasured community asset. Without it, Boise, in my opinion, looks very, very different.”

He started reading up about how the resort had approached the snowmaking issue in the 1990s, and found the answer deep in the files of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

“They’d pursued groundwater as the source,” Bromley said. “They had an idea under the prior management that they would be able to drill high-producing wells, and do it that way.” But, he said, “It’s a tough hydrogeologic environment up there, it’s fractured granite. … They were never able to come up with a well that was going to work.”

About the time Wilson arrived as the new general manager, Bromley said, “I was able to get in front of Brad and say, ‘You know, I think there’s a way to do this, and you do it with surface water.’ You do it with Bogus Creek water and build a pond to store it, because the groundwater approach wasn’t going to work.”

Bogus brought on SPF Water Engineering, a Boise firm at which partner Christian Petrich was just as avid a Bogus Basin skier as Bromley. He’s also a Ph.D. engineer hydrologist and former associate director of the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Idaho. Bromley and Petrich began intensive research, measuring flows in Bogus Creek and making calculations.

“It sure looked like, based on what we were seeing, that it would work,” Bromley said. “It was how big of a pond to build.”

The 42-acre-foot pond now under construction will serve both the first and second phases of Bogus Basin’s snow-making system. The first phase will spray man-made snow top-to-bottom on runs on the Deer Point, Coach and Morning Star chairlifts. The second phase, which doesn’t yet have a timeline, would add Showcase and more runs off Morning Star, all on the resort’s front side.

Wilson said the fact that the front side of Bogus Basin drains into the Payette River, not the Boise, made all the difference in securing water rights. In the Payette basin, unlike the Boise, they were available. But there also was a senior water rights holder already diverting water from Schaefer Creek, into which Bogus Creek flows and which flows into the Payette at Horseshoe Bend. Rancher Steve Dobson’s rights had been established for generations.

Water rights filings and negotiations ensued. “We were able to set up a series of very good conversations with Mr. Dobson,” Bromley said. “And we were able to come up with a solution that works both for Bogus and for Mr. Dobson.” The two sides reached a settlement early this year; the Idaho Department of Water Resources approved it this spring and issued a permit.

The rancher is entitled to his full allocation of water; Bogus can divert excess flows above that, plus all the water after the irrigation season ends in the fall.

Bogus now has five years to “prove up” its use of the water, showing that it is putting the full amount to beneficial use through snowmaking. If that’s deemed proven after five years, the department will issue a license, making Bogus Basin’s water right a property right among the nonprofit’s assets.

Bromley said snowmaking is considered a “non-consumptive” use of water. That’s because water that’s collected is put right back on the ground in the form of snow, where it melts and goes back into the same basin. Plus, man-made snow melts much more slowly than natural snow; that can be a benefit to downstream users, keeping streamflows going longer into the season.

Bogus Basin launched a capital campaign in April of 2017. By December it had raised a stunning $6.3 million — enough to build out the entire first phase of the snow-making system. The J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation donated $5 million.

Bogus already has purchased 24 portable, high-tech snow guns, at $45,000 apiece. It’s laying water and electrical lines, and just poured the foundation for a pump station at the pond that will hold two 400-horsepower pumps. The second phase would add up to 24 more snow guns and two more of the big pumps in the same pump house.

Late last week, the U.S. Forest Service approved the snow-making operations on runs located on Forest Service land.

Hydrants located about every 300 feet up the ski runs will be the attachment points for the fan guns, which can run all at once, top to bottom. Once they’re done coating one run, they’ll be unplugged and moved to the next run.

The pond will hold enough water to cover 60 acres of terrain from bare dirt to skiable, Wilson said. “But more likely what we’ll be doing is making snow on top of some natural snow,” so the supply will stretch much further.

“Through the leadership of Brad Wilson and the board and Nate Shake and the Albertson Foundation, we’ve been able to put together a really amazing project that is exactly what the mountain needs to sustain itself moving into the next 50 years,” Bromley said. “Snowmaking, I think, is going to be revolutionary for Bogus. It’s been an absolute privilege to be involved.”