Ski Industry Praying For Snow After Record Dry Year

Jan 3, 2014

2013 was a record dry year in Eugene and Medford [Oregon]. Many areas around the region have gotten half of their average snowfall or less. That’s got Northwest ski resorts, many of which haven’t even opened yet, nervously waiting for snow. So are thousands of workers and retailers who depend on the ski season. And, there’s little relief in sight.

Mt Bachelor is one of the few northwest ski resorts that has opened for the season so far.
Credit Mt Bachelor Ski Resort

Normally, by mid-December, skiers are swarming all over Mt. Ashland, in southern Oregon. But this year? Mt. Ashland’s development director, Rick Saul.
Rick Saul: “Well, right now we’re waiting for snow to arrive so we can open up the ski area.”

A big snow storm hit the region in early December. But a weather pattern trapped cold air in the valleys, leading to highs of more than 50 degrees in the mountains.
Rick Saul: “So essentially, all the snow that we had from that first robust snow storm went away and we’re down to ground zero, we’re starting all over from scratch.”

Saul has a lot of company these days. Ski areas from Mt. Shasta in northern California to HooDoo near Eugene to Snoqualmie Pass east of Seattle are closed for lack of snow. Even at slopes that are open, like Mt. Hood east of Portland and Mt. Bachelor near Bend, conditions are sketchy.
So what’s up with that? Jerry Macke at the National Weather Service in Portland explains.
Jerry Macke: “There’s been a persistent high pressure area over the western coastal United States, and basically it’s deflecting the jet stream and the storm track away from the Pacific Northwest further north into Canada.”

And, Macke says, don’t hold your breath waiting for that pattern to change.
Jerry Macke: “We do expect some weak systems to come through in the coming ten days or so, but it’s not a huge breakdown where we’re expecting large amounts of rain to change in the very near future.”

Aside from being a disappointment for skiers and a loss for ski resorts, the dry spell has left several thousand seasonal workers at Northwest slopes missing out on paychecks. Paul Hosler is director of the Ski Patrol at Mt. Shasta. He says he’s got a pension from a previous career to cushion the blow. But most of his co-workers aren’t so lucky.
Paul Hosler: “I know a lot of the patrollers, they depend on that to buy food and make the car payment and etcetera.”

The lack of snow is putting the hurt on more than just the ski industry. Snow-related tourism and recreation is big business throughout the Northwest. Paul Hosler says businesses in the town of Mt. Shasta are getting clobbered.
Paul Hosler: “Right before Christmas through the New Year’s break, they make the majority of their annual revenue during that time. And you look downtown, the hotels are empty, everybody’s cancelled their rooms. Nobody’s buying groceries, nobody’s eating out at the restaurants, nobody’s buying gas.”

Steve Rowe owns the Outdoor Store in Ashland. He says so far, holiday spending has muted the impact on his sales of outdoor gear and clothing. But, he says, for retailers and ski operators alike …
Steve Rowe: “Now that we turn into January, the holiday seasons are gone and actual ski revenue becomes more of a part of the revenue picture, they are going to suffer, as we are going to suffer for it”

But what worries Rowe more is what could happen if the dry winter continues. If the season ends with scant snowpack in the mountains, the economic impact on river-based recreation could last well past the ski season.
Steve Rowe: “That’s rafting, that’s fly fishing, gear fishing, that’s kayaking, all those sorts of things that are water oriented, get impacted by the water level. And there‘s a direct connection between snowpack and the water level.”

The folks at the National Weather Service say it’s not unusual to start the season dry, then have lots of snow. But one reason 2013 broke records for lack of precipitation is that last year, that mid-to-late winter snowfall didn’t happen. And that’s leaving thousands of skiers, retailers and seasonal workers keeping their fingers crossed and thinking snow.

copyright 2014 Jefferson Public Radio