Erika D. Smith

In Tahoe, on skis, making up for lost time

Snowboarders take on the half-pipe last weekend at Northstar in Lake Tahoe. The drought forced many resorts to close early last season. Not so this year.
Snowboarders take on the half-pipe last weekend at Northstar in Lake Tahoe. The drought forced many resorts to close early last season. Not so this year. esmith@sacbee.com

Sitting on a ski lift in Lake Tahoe, it’s really easy to forget all about the drought. That’s where I found myself last weekend, hands shielding my face from blowing snow and skis dangling from my feet for the first time in a decade.

Half the time, it was a white-out. I could only see shadows of the snowboarders tackling the slopes, but I could tell they were doing so gleefully and a bit recklessly.

For them, and more importantly for the owners of the ski resorts that dot this beautiful, mountainous land, March of 2016 has been a vindication of sorts. Proof – or so people tell themselves – that if you wait long enough, white stuff will fall from the sky.

It’s enough to make a person shout: “El Niño has come to save us all! Thank you, El Niño! Thank you!”

Just last month, though, no one was sure.

After weeks of precipitation in January, things all but dried up in February. The El Niño, it seemed, had died. The fear was that we were in for a repeat of what happened last year, when surveys found the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was far below normal.

Larger resorts, like Northstar, hobbled through the season, operating fewer lifts than normal. Nearly a dozen others cut the season short, surrendering to dismally warm and dry weather. Among them, Homewood Ski Resort, where I watched the blizzard roll in last weekend, Donner Ski Ranch, Badger Pass and Soda Springs.

A year ago this month, Sierra-at-Tahoe, unable to bury all of the patches of grass peeking through the snow, made its own announcement. “Conditions around the mountain have deteriorated to the point where we can no longer deliver a product that meets our standard. After exhausting all possible tools – even with snow-making at every opportunity and strategic movement of snow, Mother Nature came up short.”

What a difference a year makes. Headed into this weekend, the resort is boasting “over 36 feet of snow” and “more on the way.”

Indeed, March has been a different story. Buckets of water have fallen from the sky over the Central Valley. Snow has blanketed the Sierra Nevada. Last weekend alone, it snowed for 36 hours straight along Lake Tahoe’s North Shore.

The snowpack is better than it has been in recent years. Earlier this month, the snow-water equivalent was 83 percent of normal for this time of year.

Even on the drive up from Sacramento, snow lined both sides of Interstate 80. Snowplows were standing at the ready, waiting for more of the precious white stuff to fall.

With all of this, it’s easy to forget about the drought. But we’d be wise to remember the sobering words from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts.

“Not all water demands are going to be met, 100 percent, by the recovery we’re seeing relative to the last four years,” NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling said in a news briefing this month. “There are systemic issues with water supply that go beyond precipitation in any given year.”

The drought isn’t over. Don’t let yourself get snowed into believing that.

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