Ski resorts’ uphill battle with drought

Water experts in California are cautioning that a couple of mid-December storms do not a drought-buster make.

It will be months before those in the state’s water-dependent agricultural industry know whether winter precipitation will be enough to ensure sufficient supplies to bring fallowed cropland back into production this spring.

But for the industry that is arguably the most drought-susceptible in the state, the December storms have already been enough to soften its hard times, at least for this year.

The California ski industry is poised for a wondrous week between Christmas and New Year’s, the make-or-break kickoff of the 2014-15 season. From Big Bear to Mammoth to Lake Tahoe to Mount Shasta, the snow base is solid, lifts are operating, and a sizable number of the annual 7.4 million visits to California ski resorts are about to begin.

“We are very excited about the prospect after last year’s lump of coal,” said Bob Roberts, president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association. “Last year was difficult to deal with; it really brought the whole drought mentality into play. We were off 28 percent from the previous year, which was already 10 percent below average.”

While the week between Christmas and New Year’s is just one part of a successful winter sports season that also relies on a robust January, February and spring break, Roberts says it is to ski resorts what the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are to retailers.

“It can’t be a shutout,” he says.

The size and economic might of California can mask the significance of certain industries that in other states would be viewed as vital to their region’s economy. Most Californians, for instance, are likely unaware that they live in the fourth largest oil-producing state in the nation.

The ski industry is similarly overlooked in a state in which computer technology, biotechnology, green tech, aerospace, winemaking, food-growing and film production are the economic stars. But California ranks behind only Colorado in the amount of revenue and jobs created by winter sports.

To be sure, it’s still a relatively small industry. In a state with 17.5 million jobs, it accounts for only about 24,000, many of which are seasonal. Still, given its impact on tourism, a 2011 study found the industry was responsible for $1.3 billion annually in direct and indirect economic activity.

Beyond the economic impacts, however, is the ski industry’s role as a canary in foretelling the effects of climate change.

On the mountains, climate change has made its impact felt in very tangible ways.

“We sit on the snow pack. We’ve seen what happened,” says Roberts, who notes that when he worked at a Mount Shasta resort years ago there were five glaciers that have since melted away. “Our industry throughout the world has been experiencing challenges.”

A 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the downhill ski industry lost more than $1 billion in revenue over the decade that ended in 2010, the result of diminished winter snow and earlier spring melts.

In California, entering the fourth year of a drought that may or may not be about to ease, it’s gotten worse since then. Last year’s snowfall was the lowest in 30 years.

The declining fortunes have led to a trend that anyone who watched “White Christmas” this week may find disappointing: It’s no business for small operators such as Major General Waverly any more, not even in Vermont.

It’s an industry that’s consolidating, dominated by big outfits that have the capital to provide upscale amenities and diversify recreational activities.

Vail Resorts now owns two of the premier Lake Tahoe-area resorts; Denver-based KSL has taken over Squaw Valley, home to the 1960 Winter Olympics; and the Starwood Capital Group in 2005 purchased the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the resort that attracts more skiers each winter than any in the United States outside of Colorado.

“The big resorts are repositioning themselves as year-round mountain resorts,” Roberts noted.

But this year, with a decent blanket of white covering the eastern spine of California, all of those challenges can be temporarily forgotten.

“All my people have fingernails this year,” Roberts said. “Last year at this time, they had bitten them down. We’re getting in pretty good shape to rectify the evils of last year.”

Even with a promising start to the water year, farmers across California will likely continue to pray for rain. But up in the mountains, they’re singing rather than praying.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.

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