Drought hits winter sports hard

Kaila Young, A&E Editor

California’s drought is causing major problems throughout the state, especially in the north where the absence of snow in higher elevations means a bad turnout for ski resorts and other businesses in the greater Lake Tahoe area.

California has experienced the driest 12 months in recent memory, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. NBC Bay Area reports that there has not been a year this dry since 1946, and it had rained more than twice as much back then than it has this winter.

California has been hit with drought the hardest nationally, with 95 percent of the state experiencing either “extreme” or “severe” drought, as reported by the United States Drought Monitor. Of that 95 percent, the counties experiencing the worst drought are Sacramento, Sonoma and Placer counties, that latter of which includes Lake Tahoe.

Two to three feet of snow is needed before a ski resort can open, and most Tahoe resorts are barely making the cut.

Heavenly Valley was doing far better than their competitors from Jan. 30 through Feb. 8, with a reported base depth of about 39 inches (3.25 feet). But on Feb. 9, Kirkwood Mountain Resort beat them out with a reported 46 inches (3.8 feet).

For an idea of how much it should be snowing, Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort claims an average annual snowfall of 480 inches (40 feet). But this year their season total as of Feb. 9 is only 105 inches (8.75 feet and 22 percent of what’s normal.)

Junior snowboarder Baylee Arbogast is not bothering with the trek to Tahoe this year. Arbogast got new gear and has a season pass to Kirkwood, but she hasn’t used either.

“There’s not enough snow,” said Arbogast. “I don’t want to gash my board on the bare rocks. And man-made snow is too slushy.”

Some resorts have invested in snow-making machines, but man-made snow is very expensive and uses a lot of water. It takes 75,000 gallons of water to create just a 200-by-200 square foot, six-inch-thick blanket of snow, according to SMI Snow Makers.

That’s enough water to take a 21-day-long shower. And most of that snow ends up melting and evaporating before the end of the day.

All of the ski resorts in Tahoe are open and running with various degrees of success, but none of them are fully functional.

On most days, Heavenly has the least number of open runs. Only 24 of their 97 runs (25 percent) were up and running on Jan. 30 and 31. On Super Bowl Sunday and on Feb. 9, only 33 runs (34 percent) were open.

The resort with the most operating runs is Sierra-at-Tahoe, by a large margin, with 32 of  46 runs (70 percent) open on Super Bowl Sunday. But on Feb. 9, they only had two runs open .

Senior skier JT Garwood said he has gone to Northstar California Resort several times this season and has noticed that the resort isn’t exactly running at full steam.

“It was really sad,” Garwood said. “At Northstar there were only six runs open, and when you’re going up the lift you can see that everything is bare and terrible.”

The resorts outside of Tahoe are doing far worse. There is even less snow there than in the immediate Tahoe area. Most of them, such as Dodge Ridge east of Sonora, have yet to open for the season. The ones that did open were only open for a very short time before closing.

Most ski resorts, both inside and outside of Tahoe, are still selling season passes. None of their websites mention anything about refunds because of the lack of snow. Dodge Ridge is not offering refunds for season passes, but it does allow ticket holders to use the Dodge Ridge pass at Sierra-at-Tahoe for an additional fee of $50.

But many tourists are skipping the snow sports in favor of taking advantage of Tahoe’s warm weather. The National Drought Mitigation Center reports that there has been an increase in summer recreational activities, such as mountain biking, river rafting, hiking, beach walking, and sunbathing.

Businesses that are not usually open this time of the year are incidentally taking what little business the ski resorts manage to dig up. Senior Brandy Bondoc went on a snowboarding trip over the Super Bowl weekend and found that the crowds were rather thin at Northstar.

“There were definitely a lot more people before [in previous years],” Bondoc said. “It wasn’t as crowded as I thought it would be on Saturday.”

Ski and snowboard repair businesses are also doing well because the snow is thin and the slopes are littered with bare rocks and dirt that damage equipment.

On Jan. 30, Dodge Ridge’s website read: “The weather can change quickly this time of year and we’re watching the forecast for the storm that will get us open.”

A small storm swept through Tahoe over the Super Bowl weekend, but Dodge Ridge only got eight inches and remained closed.

Heavenly received the most snow that weekend with a reported 24 inches.

Another storm passed through Feb. 7-9, this one only marginally larger than the one over the Super Bowl weekend. Dodge Ridge got 20 inches, but it  remained closed.  Alpine Meadows got the most snow with 49 inches (4.1 feet).

But snow is falling much more heavily elsewhere in the country. This could cause desperate Californian skiers and snowboarders to make a longer trek this year, taking Tahoe’s business with them as they travel elsewhere in search of some fresh, white powder.

“I’m going to Colorado in two weeks,” said Garwood. “Hopefully I’ll get my fix for skiing because the snow’s good there.”