5 Ski Destinations Squeezed by Drought

Late-season storm may not be enough to save West Coast ski season


The West is wracked by drought. Last month California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and asked Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. Ski resorts are also feeling the pain.

Snowfall has been down west of the Rockies, in some places by record amounts. While this week’s winter storm has been a welcome relief, it won’t be enough to offset the water deficit, nor will it likely do much more than give resorts a late-season bump in a year that is otherwise a bust.

With some of the lowest snowfall in over 40 years and a corresponding drop in attendance, many smaller resorts may be forced to take buyouts, according to a report by Bloomberg. Larger ones are relying on snowmaking to make it through the winter, but are also hurting.

And the worst may be yet to come. As climate change continues largely unabated, advocates in the snowsports industry are beginning to sound the alarm bells, led by the non-profit Protect Our Winters. Powder Magazine editor Porter Fox even took to the pages of the New York Times Sunday to ask if we’re seeing the beginning of “the end of snow.”

From his op-ed:

The facts are straightforward: The planet is getting hotter. Snow melts above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The Alps are warming two to three times faster than the worldwide average, possibly because of global circulation patterns. Since 1970, the rate of winter warming per decade in the United States has been triple the rate of the previous 75 years, with the strongest trends in the Northern regions of the country. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, and this winter is already looking to be one of the driest on record — with California at just 12 percent of its average snowpack in January, and the Pacific Northwest at around 50 percent.

Below are five ski and snowboard destinations feeling these effects right now.

Arizona Snowbowl
Located in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Ariz. this 75-year-old resort has always been a tough sell. Although it averages 260 inches of snow a year, it is still ultimately located in a desert and can’t waste the area’s precious water making snow in lean years. Or at least, it couldn’t until 2012, when the ski area implemented a controversial plan to use recycled wastewater for snowmaking. Now being challenged in court by Hopi tribespeople who accuse it defiling sacred lands, the Snowbowl may eventually be ordered to stop its snowmaking, potentially spelling doom in this increasingly drought-plagued region. “Snowmaking is a must for us to continue to exist,” said Snowbowl spokesman Jason Stratton to Adventure Journal. “It gives us a future.”

Lake Tahoe
It’s not just the desert that’s suffering. Lake Tahoe is normally famous for its long ski season and huge snowpack—averaging between 400 inches and 500 inches a year. But it wasn’t until last week that the area got its first major snow dump of the season, bringing over 60 inches to the region during a single storm. Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows hadn’t even been able to open its two new lifts prior to the storm.

Even with a top-of-the-line snowmaking operation, Mammoth is a little less, well, mammoth this year because of California’s drought. Prior to the big storm this past weekend, Mammoth’s visitor numbers were down 25 percent and it gave employees a corresponding pay cut, according to a report last week by the L.A. Times. “Our snowmaking crews are working incredibly hard,” Mammoth CEO Rusty Gregory told the paper. “But the bottom line is this: Mother Nature owns the place and we just rent it.”

Southern California
It’s not just the Sierras facing a tough year. Luckily Snow Summit and Bear Mountain Resorts in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles are located next to a ready water supply, Big Bear Lake, and have invested heavily in snowmaking machines in the last few years. They’ve been able to keep 80 percent of their runs open, according to the L.A.Times. Still visitor numbers are down. Attendance is even worse at Mount Baldy, the closest ski mountain to L.A., with only half the visitors of last year and no comparable reservoir for snowmaking to draw on, reports Bloomberg.

The Northwest
The Cascades are usually reliably snowy, but not this year. Oregon has gotten the worst of it, such that one resort, Hoodoo Ski Area, only just opened this weekend, and only expects to have a 10-week season. Prior to this week’s storm, snowpack across the state was down more than 50 percent, and even resorts in Washington have been playing catch-up with the season’s late offerings.


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