Snow Shortages Are Plaguing the West’s Mountains


With gusts of wind howling around Mount Ashland’s vacant ski lodge this week, Andrew Gast watched from a window as a brief snowfall dusted the landscape. It was not nearly enough.

The ski area’s parking lot remained largely empty. On the slopes, manzanita bushes and blades of grass were poking through patches of what little snow had landed. Even the 7,533-foot summit — the highest point in the Siskiyou Mountains along the Oregon-California border — still had bare spots. These days Mr. Gast has been checking the weather forecast the moment he wakes up, only to learn that warmer and drier days lie ahead.

“I’m trying not to pay attention to it too much right now because it’s just going to cause me heartburn,” said Mr. Gast, who manages the nonprofit community ski area south of Ashland, Ore. He spent much of this week in his office, preparing to issue furloughs or layoffs.

Across much of the West Coast, from the Cascades in the north to the Sierra Nevada in the south, mountain sites are recording less than half of their normal snowpack for this point in winter. The situation has created serious problems for dozens of ski resorts during the holiday weeks, which are crucial to their livelihoods, and has stirred wider concerns about the future — for the coming summer agriculture season and for the region’s altered ecosystems amid a warming climate.

The snow that blankets mountain ranges in winters serves as a vital reservoir that is released when temperatures rise each summer. The snowmelt cools rivers enough to sustain salmon runs, propels hydropower systems that provide the region’s electricity and feeds irrigation channels needed to supply the nation’s apples, blueberries and almonds.

Climate change has already started depleting that natural reservoir, with researchers finding that the typical mountain snowpack has declined in recent decades, resulting in trillions of gallons less water in a typical year — enough volume lost to fill Lake Mead. Declining snowmelt has contributed to the drought crisis on the Colorado River, the water source for 40 million Americans.

“When I first started studying this issue 35 years ago, it seemed very theoretical at the time,” said Phil Mote, a scientist at Oregon State University who researches snow accumulation and its connection to climate change. “Now it’s not.”

Farmers are already watching this year’s forecasts and searching for signs of snow on the mountain peaks. Scott Revell, the manager of the Roza Irrigation District in central Washington, said he and others are monitoring the snowpack daily and have been making preparations for a possible water shortage next year.

Even before winter, the region was in a supply hole, with a net water shortage going into October and lower-elevation hillsides that were particularly dry. Mr. Revell said there is always a possibility that blasts of snow at the beginning of the year could turn the region’s fortunes around, but the district, which irrigates thousands of acres of apples, wine grapes and hops, has been warning farmers that signs so far do not bode well.

“We are and have been taking action for several months to be prepared for severe shortage,” he said. That includes preparing for emergency water wells, exploring options to lease water and discussing with farmers about whether some plots of land should be left fallow for the season.

For ski resorts, the climate trends are likely to mean they’ll have shorter seasons, with big fluctuations from year to year. As a temporary solution, some resorts have invested in costly snow-making machines to help ensure a more consistent schedule.

But even with those efforts, resort operators have struggled to overcome the lack of natural snow so far this winter. Some ski areas remain closed, while larger resorts at higher elevations have opened only a portion of their lifts.

At Palisades Tahoe in California, crews have so far recorded 38 inches of snow on a mountain that typically averages about 400 inches per season. The resort has slowly expanded its operations in recent weeks, helped by $6 million it spent in the past couple of years on snow-making equipment. Big Bear Mountain Resort in Southern California was trying to expand its limited operations but dealing with temperatures in the mid-50s on Thursday.

In Washington, Crystal Mountain has managed to open less than half its ski area, and officials warned people to watch for shrubs that might be sticking out of the snow in some spots.

The trouble with reopening ski runs has stretched into much of the interior West, including in Sun Valley, Idaho, where manufactured snow has helped build routes through hills where many shrubs on Thursday were still visible, bathed in sunlight.

Mount Ashland has dealt with troubled years before. A lack of snow during the 2013-14 season prevented the ski area from opening at all. The mountain has historically averaged about 260 inches of snow each year, but that has declined in recent years to about 240.

Doug Volk, who is the director of mountain operations at the ski area and has worked there for four decades, said he recalled the mountain opening for skiers around Thanksgiving in some years when he was younger. Now, even early December is less reliable, he said.

Mr. Volk typically has about 60 people working under him during regular operations. Right now, there are only a half-dozen, and there are discussions about further cuts.

“That’s probably one of the hardest things you have to deal with,” he said.

The mountain had a promising start in early December, when the area got about a foot of snow. But then an atmospheric river from the tropics soaked the region in warm rain. Adding to the uncertainty is an El Niño climate pattern that can leave the Northwest warmer and drier than in other years. Forecasters at the National Weather Service predict that much of the West Coast will likely have above-average temperatures this winter.

Mr. Volk said the mountain needs about two to three feet of snow for the ski area to operate. As he checked forecasts on his computer this week, he saw no sign of that coming. The snow level was set to rise above the mountain’s peak.

As a few flurries fell on the ski area this week, Lisa Parker arrived with her family, some of whom were visiting from Mississippi for the holidays. When the gathering was planned, Ms. Parker had promised days of snow recreation around their home in the Ashland area, on property that is at an elevation level of about 3,500 feet.

She said her family had moved there to be close to snow recreation. But this winter, there has been no snow near their home, she said. They finally found a taste of it after going up to Mount Ashland, sledding in an area not yet deep enough for skiing.

“This is really unusual to us,” she said. “We are chasing snow like we used to do when we were in the South.”

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