Winters like this one, here in Northern California, really test the fortitude of any ski-resort marketing professional. As of January 17, snowfall this season has been generally pathetic, and 2013 was the driest year on record on California. Squaw Valley has a 21" base at last check, and a 5-foot season total. Five feet. There's only so many ways to spin sunshine and artificial snow as a lure for getting us to make that 4-hour drive. It's the same story at other resorts, and down south is no better. Mammoth is clocking in with a 25-inch base at its 11,000-foot summit.
One wouldn't want to jump to conclusions about what this arid winter means (since it follows a fairly dry winter last year). Just as a deep freeze in the Midwest last week does not disprove global warming. That said, the recent polar vortex appears linked to the loss of Arctic sea ice. And here in California, "the ensemble of climate models point to an increasing frequency of warm-dry winters," says Jeffrey Mount, a geology professor at the University of California, Davis, and the founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
So, what is the upshot? In the near term: skiing in the Golden State is likely going to suck for the rest of the season. The same may be true next winter, too. That's simply part of living in our Mediterranean climate, characterized by booms and busts in terms of precipitation. More concerning may be how Mount sums up the drought, calling it unprecedented. "The combination of a lack of rainfall and warm temperatures makes this the most epically dry period since the arrival of Europeans. And it has been happening for only three years so far. Other droughts have lasted six years. I can't paint a more bleak picture."
Back in the 1976-1977 winter season, a short-but-intense California drought left Mammoth, which has an average snowfall of 400 inches, with just season total of just 94 inches. That was a different era in the ski industry, the pre-snowmaking era. Today, most sizable resorts have the resources (namely, water and power) to make enough snow to give guests something to slide on.
Governor Brown has just declared an official drought, which means water use is about to come under tight control. Things like landscaping, that do not have a "beneficial use," are the first to be rationed. Businesses tend to get a pass, until the situation is dire enough to threaten public safety and the need for adequate urban water supply.
That said, resorts that use groundwater for snowmaking, such as Squaw Valley, will not be legally bound to use less water. That's because groundwater in California, except for in a few specific basins, is not regulated. Some policy makers have tried, and failed, to change that. "People realize [groundwater and surface water] are connected to one resource," says Chuck Curtis, supervisor engineer on the quality control board of the Lahontan water region, in which Squaw Valley sits. "But there is not political will [to regulate it]."
From an environmental perspective, snowmaking is far from benign, but more because of the energy it consumes than the water it uses, nearly all of which stays in the hydrological system. With 80 percent of our water resources in California going to agriculture, ski resorts' consumption is barely a blip. Let's not forget our own sponginess, either. When factoring it all uses, consumption has been clocked at an average of 150 gallons per person, per day, in many California municipalities.
Even with snowmaking, whether resorts will continue to meet financial goals during droughts is another question—guests tend to stay away in the lowlands when the weather is warm, even if conditions are fair to midland in the mountains.
Once we are eventually drawn up from these lowlands, it might be for extreme weather in the opposite direction. "We [in California] are going to have amazing years in the future, where it just snows buckets," says Mount. "But you'll have these stinker droughts, too."