Sierras suffer driest winter in 20 years |

Sierras suffer driest winter in 20 years

Tom Gardner
Vail, CO Colorado

RENO, Nev. (AP) ” One Sierra ski area has called it quits for the season while others struggle to keep lifts running and workers busy during the driest winter in nearly two decades.

Northern California’s June Mountain, which averages 250 inches of snow at the top of its 10,090-foot summit, conceded to nature Jan. 28.

“We had to say, ‘Just not this year.’ We got to the point where we finally pulled the plug,” General Manager Carl Williams said Monday.

With a base of 3 to 18 inches and limited snowmaking capability at the resort some 180 miles east of San Francisco, Williams said June Mountain was not providing a quality experience for skiers.

“It was very marginal when we opened. Much longer, it would have gotten unsafe,” he said. “Last year it was 600 inches of snow. This year, it’s nothing, so it’s still an average of 300.”

Most of June Mountain’s 175 workers were let go a week ago. About 20 full-time staff were reassigned to Mammoth Mountain, its sister resort 20 miles to the south, which is working around the clock to maintain a 3-4 foot base of packed powder and machine-groomed snow, Williams said.

It’s the same story some 150 miles north in the Lake Tahoe Basin, where employees’ hours are being slashed as much as 80 percent to try to avoid layoffs.

Although other western ski areas benefited from storms late last year, most of the snow skipped over the Sierra on its way east, leaving the mountains along the California-Nevada line without their seasonal thick white caps.

The last time snow was so skimpy at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe resort south of Reno was in 1990-91, which was rescued by a huge “Miracle March” snowfall that resuscitated ski resorts but barely dented the drought that had begun three years earlier.

Dan Greenlee, a hydrologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the snowpack up and down the Sierra compares with that winter 17 years ago, averaging from 30 percent to 40 percent of normal for early February.

At Squaw Valley USA on Tahoe’s northwest shore, spokeswoman Savannah Cowley said the resort was managing to avoid layoffs.

“If anything, we’re putting more time into snowmaking. … to keep running as many lifts as if there was snow,” she told the Sierra Sun in Truckee, Calif.

Sugar Bowl, at Donner Summit, said it was slashing hours 50 percent to 80 percent for employees in food and beverage, lift operations and housekeeping.

“We’re on serious cutbacks right now,” Human Resources Director Regina Nystrom said.

The resort is trying to help workers whose hours have been cut by providing free dinners, but Nystrom said some workers have had to leave in search of a paycheck.

Mammoth Lakes’ always upbeat marketing and public relations manager, Jimmy Kellett, said this year’s slow start could be followed by a big finish reminiscent of 1991, and Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe spokesman Mike Pierce remained optimistic.

“It’s coming,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “But this is a weird year. There’s no doubt about it.”

Forecasters are calling for a possibility of snow by the weekend, but expect it to fall fairly high in the mountains, turning to rain at lower elevations.

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