Tahoe faces wild swings in snowfall. Here’s what resorts are doing about it

Despite last week’s heavy snowfall, Tahoe ski resorts know they can't predict how strong each winter will be.

They suffered through drought years earlier this decade. Out of nowhere last year, Tahoe was deluged with so much precipitation that avalanches were a regular concern.

This season has been subpar, save for the occasional big storm system, including one last week that forced Squaw Valley to close due to an afternoon avalanche that seriously injured one person.

While some might view the ski industry as a threatened enterprise with conditions so unpredictable, resorts are moving quickly to invest in equipment to deal with both drought years and avalanche conditions.

Doing so is necessary as climate change grows worse, said Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings. He pointed to last winter when resorts were deluged with so much snow that Squaw stayed open into July. And to this winter, when snowfall was so scarce in December and January that some resorts had to close ski runs.

“Climate change is real. To deny it is a fool’s errand,” Wirth said.

In response to last winter’s massive snow totals, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows invested heavily in new avalanche-mitigation equipment and continued upgrading snow-making machines.

Wirth said new grooming vehicles and the anti-avalanche Gazex Inertia Exploder help the resort deal with the freakishly strong winters. On the strength of one of the wettest winters on record, Squaw offered skiing past July 4 for the first time last year.

On the flip side, Squaw has continued to invest in equipment that more efficiently makes snow in drought years. Refinements in snow-making technology allow each of the snow guns to automatically adjust their water-to-air mix based on the air temperature and other conditions.

The efforts at Squaw Alpine reflect broader industry-wide efforts.

“We strongly support climate initiatives at ski resorts at the local, state and federal levels, as well as globally,” said Michael L. Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “We rely on Mother Nature in many ways, and it is our goal as an industry to take care of the environment we live in.”

Randall Osterhuber, a UC Berkeley researcher at the Central Sierra Snow Lab, said the variance in precipitation is increasing.

“We will see more of these extreme years, very dry and very wet,” he said.

But he also pointed out that as winters grow warmer, the elevation at which precipitation turns from rain to snow will creep higher through the years.

Noah Diffenbaugh, professor and senior fellow at Stanford University, said that while the region will still get occasional years with heavy precipitation, there’s no guarantee that it will always be snowfall. Or that it will last long before it melts. He declined to speculate on whether the ski industry will be able to cope.

At Heavenly in the South Lake Tahoe area, one effort to improve skiing conditions in low snowfall years is in the planning stages and undergoing environmental review.

Heavenly is seeking to widen as many as a dozen trails by eliminating trees and blasting boulders. Kevin Cooper, a California spokesman for Heavenly owner Vail Resorts, said that plan would improve the user experience and require less snow to open areas that are hazardous during low snow conditions.

Vail Resorts, which also owns Kirkwood and Northstar in the Tahoe region, is working toward zero net emissions and zero waste to landfill by 2030. The effort includes doubling down on energy efficiency, purchasing 100 percent renewable energy and investing in tree planting.

Reitzell said sustainability efforts are a big part of the solution. In September, Boreal Mountain Resort announced plans to install a 235 kW solar photovoltaic system – the largest among California ski resorts. The installation will offset 15 percent of the resort’s total energy use and is expected to add power to the grid in the summer.

Squaw Alpine also has pledged to move to 100 percent renewable power, with a goal of doing it by the end of 2018. Wirth said the resort is pushing its power provider, Liberty Utilities, to move from coal to renewable sources of energy. As another component of the resort’s green power initiative, Squaw Alpine plans to install Tesla batteries to increase reliability.