Early Closures for Ski Areas Reflect Meager Snowpack - NBC Southern California

Coverage of one of California's most severe dry spells on record and its dramatic turnaround

Early Closures for Ski Areas Reflect Meager Snowpack

Resorts are closing early as low snowpack means fewer skiers in the mountains.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Early Closures for Ski Areas Reflect Meager Snowpack
    Barbara Janeway
    Driving home from Big Bear Saturday via Hwy 38

    Once upon a time, early spring was a great time for snow sports, but as drought moves into year four, skiers and riders are grateful to have anything between them and the slope.

    "It's pretty slushy, pretty melty," said snowboarder Nicky Hackman after a run Wednesday at Snow Summit in Big Bear.

    "Kind of like wakeboarding out there," chimed in her friend Micah Peasly. "It's still fun," she said of her reward for driving from Los Angeles.

    Big Bear's Snow Summit and Bear Valley are the last of the local ski areas still open, thanks to snow-making. But they will also call it a season Sunday.

    Dismal Snowpack Leaves Ski Resorts to Close Early

    [LA] Dismal Snowpack Leaves Ski Resorts to Close Early
    Ski resorts in the Sierras are closing early as the dismal snow pack leaves little for them to entice skiers. Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on March 25, 2015.
    (Published Wednesday, March 25, 2015)

    "If you're a real skier, you'll ski on anything," said Billy Robbins, who drove up from Huntington Beach.

    Winter weather during this prolonged drought has been not only drier than usual, but often also warmer.

    "We have longer warm spells that we can't even make snow during some of that time," said Chris Riddle, marketing vice-president for the Big Bear Mountain Resorts.

    Far more snow usually falls on resorts to the north in the Sierra Nevada, but they are struggling as well, with a dozen in the Lake Tahoe Area already closed. Mammoth Mountain counts 120 inches of snow so far this season, far more than what has fallen on ski areas closer to Los Angeles, but that represents Mammoth's driest winter since 1976.

    Still, Mammoth expects to stay open at least through April, said spokeswoman Lauren Burke.

    Sierra snowpack is monitored closely at multiple locations by California's Dept. of Water Resources because snowpack melt normally provides about one-third of the state's water needs.

    As of the latest readings earlier this month, snowpack on average amounts to only 19 percent of normal, only one percentage point above the lowest ever measurements of 18 percent taken in 1991.

    Disappointing snow conditions at resorts can be seen as a bellwether for how much water will be available to fill the reservoirs that feed the California Aqueduct.

    "It tells you it's a time of reckoning as you look around and see how little snow there truly is," said skier Brian Reccow as he surveyed the Sugar Bowl ski area west of Tahoe.

    Allocations from the state water project are now set at 20 percent.

    Next month, it's expected a decision will be made to make a 10 to 20 percent cut in allocations to member agencies of the Metropolitan Water District, which distributes water imported from the Colorado River and the State Project.

    "I'm just hoping we have drinking water over here the next few years." said skier Raj Kadevari, who lives in Palm Desert.

    Location has also been a factor in the drought's impact on water systems, and on ski areas as well.

    Big Bear's resorts have benefitted from access to nearby Big Bear Lake as a source for snowmaking. It was last filled to the top of its dam in 2012, and since then has fallen 11 feet, according to Mike Stephenson, general manager of the Big Bear Municipal Water District.

    He expects it could drop another three feet over summer. In recent decades, it dropped as low as 17 feet in 2004.

    Big Bear Lake is not tapped for drinking water. For decades it had served as an irrigation source for growers in the Redlands area. But under an agreement dating back two decades, irrigation water can be taken only when the lake is within four feet of full, Stephenson said.

    "We've never even come close to our maximum that we can use," Riddle said.

    The 2014-15 season actually had begun promisingly, with a series of storms in December.  But then it stopped and temperatures rose.

    "We normally get a couple of good spring storms," said Kevin Kenney, a manager at Blauersnowboards in Big Bear.  "But this year nothing."  The shop is preparing for its winter close-out sale before moving on to stocking for spring and summer sports. 

    As the days grow longer and the last of the snow melts, the focus shifts to mountain biking and lake activities, with hope next winter the drought will relent.

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