California Ski Resorts Receive Beneficial Snow Following Tough 2013 Season

The train of storms that has pushed through California this month has brought welcome snow to California ski resorts after a tough 2013 season that was dramatically impacted by drought.

"We had a very poor season in terms of weather," Bob Roberts, president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association, said.

"The major resorts had decent years, but they certainly didn't have their gangbuster years," he said.

The recent snowfall is particularly welcome in Southern California, where it has been a slow start for ski resorts this year. During this early season, without enough natural snow and unfavorable temperatures for snowmaking, it's been difficult for resorts to open or stay open.

Despite the snowstorms and the ability to produce artificial snow, Snow Valley Mountain Resort in Running Springs, California, didn't open until Dec. 17. On its Facebook page, Mt.Baldy Ski Lifts in Mount Baldy, California, reported enough snow for a base, but it would need more to open for skiing and snowboarding and has yet to open.

"It's a little bit later than what we hope, always our hope is to open up by Thanksgiving," said Kevin Somes, vice president and general manager of Snow Valley.

The later openings have been common in recent years. In 2013, Snow Valley opened Dec. 10. Mt. Baldy typically targets an opening date within the first couple weeks of December.

"In the last three years it's been pretty bad where we open mid- to- late-December," said Phillip Tibbetts, ticket office and product manager for Mt. Baldy. "This year being another kind of late [opening]."

Mt. Baldy in 2010 (Photo/Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts)

Tibbetts said they rely on natural snow to a point, because Mt. Baldy is a smaller resort with a lot less snow-making infrastructure than other ski areas such as Big Bear Mountain Resorts. Mt. Baldy is currently blowing snow but due to low water supplies, they're being extremely selective where and when they make snow.

"Last year, for example, it was hardly even cold enough to blow snow, so we had trouble even doing that," he said.

Mountain High Ski Resort, only 90 minutes from Los Angeles, was the first to open in Southern California when they opened one trail on Nov. 25 and remained open through Thanksgiving. Due to warm conditions and heavy rain that washed away their man-made snow, the mountain was closed until they reopened on Sunday, Dec. 14 after receiving 6-8 inches of snow and adding more than 6 inches of artificial snow.

Mountain High expects to remain open into April, said Kim Herman, sales and marketing manager for the resort. Herman added that over the last four years it has not been uncommon for Mountain High to close early in December.

The Southern California weather pattern can be a challenging one for ski areas. One day it can be around 30 F and they will get all the snow they want, Somes said. Then the next week, temperatures can rebound into the mid-60s and with the sun beating down on the mountain, they will start to lose snow.

Part of Snow Valley's terrain relies 100 percent on natural snow, while another part of their mountain can be supplemented with snowmaking, Somes added.

"We can make snow, and make a tremendous amount of snow when we have the temperatures," Somes said. "We just have not had a solid window of cold temperatures where we can make snow on a consistent basis and that's what really hurt the resorts down here in Southern California is not having that window of snow-making opportunity as we call it."

The ongoing drought has been felt by resorts throughout the state and not just Southern California. The New York Times reported in November that resorts are making larger investments in snowmaking.

Last year's snowpack measured at the University of California Berkley's Central Sierra Snow Lab, located near Lake Tahoe, measured a depth of 52 inches, the second lowest of the last 90 years according to the Times.

The 2014 water year, which concluded on Sept. 30, was the third driest in the state's history, the California Department of Water Resources reported.

The statewide summary of the Sierra Nevada snowpack as of Dec. 16 was at 48 percent of normal, up 20 percent from that date last year, but still far below the 85 percent of 2012.

"Snow has still been lacking this season so far," Western Weather Expert Ken Clark said. "The amount of water in the snowpack in the Sierra is far below what is normal for even this time of year."

Snowmaking can be an extensive process for a lot of the resorts, because there is so much terrain to cover. However, curtailed water usage isn't an issue for the resorts as they typically have their own private resources.

"All [ski resorts] have the ability to make snow," said Roberts. "It's not an issue for consumptive use because we're making it, but we're preserving it at the same time. It's no different than normal snowpack, basically it is normal snowpack except were building it up from water rather than waiting for Mother Nature to provide it."

Given the drought, Somes said they have received questions about whether they are going to make snow, but he echoed Roberts sentiment about it being a minimally consumptive process.

"We're essentially storing water in the form of snow and as it melts in the spring, when the season is coming to an end, it gets returned back into the water system," he said.

Roberts said they were fairly optimistic that the state would see a reasonable amount of snow this year, and the recent snowfall has led to great anticipation.

"We're pretty upbeat about the way this season's getting kicked off," Roberts said.