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Ski-nomics: The Business of Ski Resorts in a Future with Less Snow

While some resorts are struggling, Vail group is expanding and insulating itself

Jeremy Miller

On a recent winter weekend, Kirkwood's slopes had bare patches.

What a difference a season makes at one laid-back California ski area known for deep powder, sweeping bowls and short lift lines.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort, located 35 miles southwest of the glittering mega resorts of Lake Tahoe, is well off its average of 500 inches of snow per year (and a far cry from last year’s record-setting 748 inches). This weekend’s North Face Masters big mountain snowboard competition has been postponed because of lack of snow on the area’s high cirques. And last Wednesday, the resort was bought for $18 million by Colorado-based Vail Resorts.

Kirkwood’s purchase by Vail, a company whose aggressive expansion and intensive development at its other ski areas (including Tahoe resorts Heavenly and Northstar) may portend multi-million dollar ski chalets, luxury boutiques and high-speed gondolas — all things the remote Kirkwood has eschewed in its 40 years of operation.

But according to some industry watchers, Vail’s business model may offer economic insulation from a changing climate, as California’s mountain snowpack is projected to decline by as much as 25% by mid-century.

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The “Magic Dust” that Brings More Sierra Snow

Dust from across the Pacific seeds Sierra snowflakes

Molly Samuel

Researchers found that heavy snowfall in the Sierra is connected to the amount of dust floating over from Asia.

In a weird twist on the “butterfly effect,” evidence is that Asian dust storms can mean more snow in the Sierra. The strange finding surfaced in research by scientists working on NOAA’s CalWater program. Scientists compared two Sierra storms, and found the one that contained dust particles from Asia had 40% more precipitation than the one that did not. The other storm had more particulate matter from sources in California, for instance, from burning trees or grass.

The researchers, including Kim Prather and Doug Collins from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego compared the two storms from the air.

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The Case of the Disappearing Sierra Snowfall

A new report says snowfall in the Sierra hasn’t shrunk, but not everyone’s buying it

Molly Samuel/KQED

Snow has been sparse in the Sierra Nevada this winter.

There are good years and there are bad years, but overall, snowfall in the Sierra hasn’t declined in the past century. That’s according to a new study by University of Alabama climatologist John Christy (who, it’s worth noting, has come under fire as a climate change denier).

The San Francisco Chronicle had a story about the report, “Searching for information in 133 years of California snowfall observations,” (link is to the abstract; full article is behind a pay wall) in today’s paper:

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Snow in Tahoe Already: How Weird is That?

Meteorologists say it’s the shortest Sierra “summer” in four decades

Matthew Green

An early snow in the Grouse Lakes area of the Sierra Nevada

By Matthew Green

For months now, I had reserved the second weekend in October for my annual grand finale “summertime” backpacking trip. Culminating an unusually short warm season, this was to be the ceremonial final alpine lake swim, the last mosquito bloodletting until well after next year’s thaw. Which is why, as my partner and I proceeded to pitch our tent in about 10 inches of snow last Friday evening, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been had.

Last week’s storm, which swept across the northern half of California early Wednesday, dumped up to a foot of snow in the Sierra’s high peaks, with accumulation as low as 5,000 feet. According to the Central Sierra Snow Lab, this is the first snowstorm in 96 days – since July 1 – marking the shortest duration between storms in the Sierra since 1969. Continue reading

Forget this Winter: Western Snowpack Shrinking

By Alyson Kenward

A new study finds large losses of springtime snow cover in the West in recent years, raising concerns about water supplies.

Spring snowpack in the West is an essential water resource, particularly in Southwestern states that are prone to summer drought, like California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. (Credit: Wolfgang Staudt on Flickr)

This spring, from the Pacific Northwest and Sierra Nevada, to the Northern Rockies, western mountain ranges were more than just snow-capped – they were buried in the white stuff. In fact, many locations still have more spring snowpack than has been seen in decades.

Head south across the 40th parallel, however, and things are dramatically different. While there is still above average snow throughout the Sierra, a relatively snow-less winter and spring has left much of the Southwest in a drought that has fostered record wildfires. Already local officials are worried there won’t be enough water to get through the summer months ahead. Continue reading

Playing the State Water Lottery

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

I don’t know Mark Cowin, the director of the state’s Department of Water Resources. I haven’t even met the man, in person. But after listening to and reading his pronouncements about the state’s water supply, I’d guess he’s a guy who would barely crack a smile if he found himself holding a winning lottery ticket. I hazard that opinion because even after today’s great news about the Sierra snowpack–which is a little like finding out the state has won its annual water lottery–what Cowin emphasizes is that California isn’t out of the woods after the dry spell of 2007-2009. But more about that to follow. First, the details on the DWR’s final Sierra snow survey.

DWR announced on Friday that statewide, the water content stored in the Sierra snow is at 143% of normal for the date; 188% in the northern Sierra, 121% in the central mountains, and 139% in the southern reaches of the range. Up and down the Sierra, those figures are more than double the levels of the past two years, and are up to seven times as much as surveyors found in the bone-dry spring of 2007.

Last week, the Department announced it would increase allocations from the State Water Project to 30% of the amount requested from 29 urban and agricultural customers. Today’s snowpack news prompted the department to say that it’s likely to increase deliveries. How much? “Only marginally,” Cowin said in a phone interview this afternoon. “We’ll have to run the numbers, and we’ll probably make that determination in the next week or two.”

How much water will State Water Project customers get, eventually? Let’s run some numbers of our own.

The main reason the department cites for the very tight supply in the midst of a year of “normal” precipitation is the continuing below-average levels at California’s biggest state-owned reservoir, Lake Oroville. As of Friday afternoon, the lake is at 72% of normal for the date and about 60% full. But the stats that Cowin’s water geeks are crunching aren’t about the level today, but where they guess it will be as runoff begins to pour from the snow-blanketed mountains through the Feather River watershed into Lake Oroville. DWR officials have insisted that it believes runoff will be held down because of dry conditions caused by the last three drought years. You wonder if they’ll still believe that after assessing the impact of an unusually wet April and its impact on the snowpack.

While pondering that, here are some other numbers to consider if you want to play what I’ll call the State Water Project Allocation Game:

  • After running far below its 2008-2009 levels all season, the water storage in Lake Oroville caught up and passed year-ago levels this week. The lake’s storage has increased six percent—more than 150,000 acre-feet—since last Friday.
  • As noted above, this year’s snowpack is better than double last year’s.
  • Last year, the state delivered 40 percent of requested water shipments to its SWP customers. The average allocation for the past 10 years is 68 percent.

Considering all of the above—last year’s deliveries, the snowpack, the sudden late-season surge in Lake Oroville’s levels—it’s a no-brainer that water deliveries will at least match last year’s 40 percent. The question is whether the allocation will go higher. All Cowin would say on that subject today is that he thinks that 45%, the amount DWR described two months ago as the upper limit for shipments this season, is still accurate.

But Cowin did say, as he has more and more frequently of late, that a preoccupation with the this year’s water level misses the point about California’s water reality.

“That’s why we’re so concerned when we get the black and white question, ‘Is the drought over,'” he said. “We are in a period of long scarcity in California. We have no idea what next year’s water supply picture will look like. It’s possible we could have two or three more dry years in a row. So we’re trying to get a message out that we need to have a new attitude about how we use water in California, and it shouldn’t depend on this week’s outlook. We need to conserve water just as a way of life.”

If you want to explore the state’s water supply picture for yourself, check out our California Reservoir Watch map, below:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map
View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

State Water Deliveries May Set New Low

State water officials have announced they are likely to release a record-low allocation of water to cities and farms next year– just five percent of what water contractors have requested. Though still preliminary, it’s the lowest allocation since the State Water Project began delivering water back in 1967.

The announcement may have caught some by surprise, since Department of Water Resources (DWR) data would seem to show reservoirs at higher levels than last year at this time, with major reservoirs at 69% of storage capacity, compared to 57% last year.

When I asked DWR Deputy Director Susan Simms about it, even she was stumped at first. But then she called me back to say that the data includes both federal and state reservoirs, and the state’s storage levels at both Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir (shared with the feds) is actually lower than last year (52% and 48% of “normal,” respectively). And, she says, the state has to contend with pumping restrictions to protect both salmon and delta smelt this time around.

DWR Director Lester Snow told reporters this morning that there’s nothing in the recently passed bundle of state water bills that can provide any immediate relief. And if you thought the prospect of increased precipitation from El Nino could save the day, don’t get out the umbrella just yet. David Rizzardo, Chief of the state’s Snow Survey section, estimates there’s only a 50-60% chance of a stronger El Nino kicking in this year. December and January will be the most telling months–but precipitation from El Nino would likely be concentrated in the southern half of the state. Officials say that would provide more “flexibility” in meeting water needs systemwide, but all of California’s biggest reservoirs are located in the northern part of the state.

December water delivery estimates almost always get a boost once it starts snowing. Last year’s initial projection was 15%, and that was later revised upward, eventually to 40 percent. Snow called today’s estimate “very conservative.”

If you think the five percent figure is supposed to scare us, it is. Water officials want to send a message that Californians need to be prepared to conserve. The state’s drought coordinator, Wendy Martin, just returned from a water tour in Australia, where she says she saw water-saving measures in place that California has yet to fully develop: storm water recapture, water recycling, and more. Martin also observed that the Australians now wish that they’d taken the epic drought of the last several years more seriously, sooner.

Sierra Snow: Scientists in Heated Agreement

Loot from the recent invasion of email servers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in Britain has raised questions about whether scientists who dissent from the prevailing views of climate research are being muzzled by their colleagues.

Snow on Mt. Whitney. Photo: USFS

Snow on Mt. Whitney. Photo: USFS

An interesting example of this arose this week in a report by Richard Harris for NPR’s All Things Considered. It’s worth a listen, if only for the back-and-forth between two climate scientists over snowfall in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, tells Harris about trouble he’s had publishing research that appears to counter the mainstream view that the Sierra snowpack is endangered. For a response, Harris goes to Philip Mote at Oregon State University, one of the scientists who reviewed Christy’s research.

Also interviewed are Gavin Schmidt of NASA and Judy Curry from Georgia Tech.

The head of the UN’s climate panel finally issued his own statement on the email flap, which was part condemnation of the hackers, part defense of the science and peer review process.

Sierra Snow Season Ends with a Whimper

Surveyor Frank Gehrke takes on last poke at the season's shrinking snow pack. Photo by Craig Miller.

Surveyor Frank Gehrke takes one last poke at the season's shrinking snow pack. Photo by Craig Miller.

When veteran snow surveyor Frank Gehrke stuck his aluminum tube into the thinning snow course at Phillips Station this morning, the “Mount Rose” snow gauge stopped dead a few inches in. He then withdrew a sad little cylinder of corn snow, about the size of a flashlight battery. There was barely a foot of snow left at this measuring station, 6,900 feet above sea level. Water content: 35% of normal. Yikes. Of course, that’s just one station among many surveyed on a monthly basis to help handicap the coming summer’s water supply.

The numbers are in for the season’s last snow survey: On average throughout the Sierra Nevada, water content clocks in at 66% of normal for this date. Last year at this time it was 72% of normal. The southern third of the Sierra came in at 61%.

So even with that hope-lifting late-season burst of precipitation that started in mid-February, we ended up even worse than last year–at least in terms of the snowpack. Some local reservoirs filled up nicely with the soggy spring. The trouble, says Gehrke, is that “The big ones didn’t.”

Some municipal water districts have vacillated on rationing plans for the summer. But the big state and federal systems that supply irrigation water to farms have largely stuck with their drastic cuts in allocations this year.

The bottom line, according to state water director Lester Snow:  “When combined with extremely dry years in 2007 and 2008, low storage in the state’s major reservoirs, restrictions on Delta pumping, a growing population and prediction of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change, it is clear the problems facing California will persist beyond this year and this drought.”

Official drought proclamations have been a source of some controversy since the rain finally began falling in February. The Department of Water Resources has produced a statewide water plan and put it up for comment until June.