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Snow-starved West means ski towns face challenging winter

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Some ski areas experienced a snowless December

Dry conditions on top of Colorado’s Monarch Pass, which sits at 11,312 feet above sea level, as seen on Thursday, January 4, 2018.
Denver Post via Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, much of the eastern United States has endured record-breaking cold temperatures and a blustery snowstorm called the “bomb cyclone.” But venture further west and you’ll find a different story: States like Colorado, Utah, and California are in the midst of a warm, dry winter that is affecting resort towns and worrying forecasters.

Colorado—one of the country’s most popular ski destinations, with about 13 million skier visits each year—has been especially hard hit. Overall, the state’s snowpack is only at about 50 percent of average, and towns like Telluride and Durango in southern Colorado are faring much worse than that. According to Telluride Ski Resort’s mountain report, the ski area has only received 26 inches of snow all season and as of January 8, only 16 percent of the mountain is open.

Throughout the West, winter’s slow start has distressed town residents who depend on skiing for their livelihoods. Lift operators and other seasonal workers need lifts running and hotels booked to make ends meet, so when a ski area isn’t fully operational, it affects everyone.

In early December, Aspen Skiing Co. set up a soup kitchen for employees who had planned to work full-time but couldn’t due to the lack of snow. Elsewhere, workers who rely on snow in Breckenridge, Vail, and Winter Park also took advantage of free meals provided by churches and businesses. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that at the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area in New Mexico, the workforce has been cut in half as only two of the six lifts are running.

Graphic--available to all-access members of Open Snow—showing Vail Mountain’s lower-than-average snow season.
Courtesy of Open Snow

Despite a reasonably strong holiday season, the lack of snow has also affected local businesses. In Telluride, sales this season at the popular barbecue restaurant Oak Fat Alley are “down substantially.” In Crested Butte, variable cross-country skiing conditions have resulted in lower ticket sales at Crested Butte Nordic, and in California and Nevada, many of Lake Tahoe’s nordic trails remain closed.

A recent Utah Snow Survey stated that this year might be one of the worst on record, and in California the snowpack is about one-fourth of average, with some areas of the Sierra Nevada measuring as low as 3 percent of normal. Despite two hefty November storms that helped Mammoth Mountain build up a base, the popular California ski area experienced a snowless December.

If that doesn’t sound like enough snow to ski on, that’s because it’s not. Almost all of the open resorts in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California are relying on man-made snow to operate. Snow guns run whenever temperatures are low enough, coating the easier and lower-altitude runs at ski areas.

For well-funded ski resorts like Vail Mountain, this means that beginner and intermediate runs are open, but much of the area’s expert terrain—like the famed Back Bowls—remains closed until Mother Nature delivers the goods. For ski areas with limited snow-making capabilities, like the small 400-acre Ski Cooper near Leadville, rocks, grass, and trees stick out from beneath the bare snowpack.

Beyond the day-to-day effects of no snow, natural resources officials are concerned about what the lack of precipitation means for future drought. Areas of the Western Slope in Colorado are already officially in drought—as is much of southern Utah—and some worry that a bad snow year in California might throw the state back into its historic five-year drought, which ended after an exceptionally good snow season last year.

A map showing the current snowpack in the West.
Courtesy of the National Water and Climate Center

Dry conditions in winter could also mean increased fire danger next summer, a sobering thought in light of the recent wildfire events that ravaged Northern and Southern California.

It’s not all bad news, however. The reservoirs in California, Utah, and Colorado are plentiful thanks to last season’s above-average snowfall. And the snowpack in the Northern Rockies is much better than farther south. Despite a dry December, much of Wyoming has received good snowfall this season, and the snowpack in Montana, Northern Idaho, and Washington state is above average.

Most importantly, there’s time for the West to recover from this winter’s dismal start. According to the expert forecasters at Open Snow, snow is in the forecast this week for California, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, and a parade of storms should hit the Western U.S. in late January. Still, a snow dance would be a good idea.