Mammoth Mountain Meltdown, Part 2

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a three-part story on the growing impact of global climate change on the ski industry, as viewed through the lens of California's Mammoth Mountain. Though it gets some of the nation's most consistent and reliable snow, last year's drought, combined with the fickle boom-and-bust cycles of resort development, nearly killed Mammoth's local economy, underscoring how unstable the entire industry is. Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 3.

Last winter, however, after early storms that got the lifts running in time for the Thanksgiving 2011 rush, Mammoth was socked with a merciless dry spell. Nary a flake fell between Dec. 1 and the end of January. Just over the usually snowbound Tioga Pass, people were ice-skating on the snow-free surface of Yosemite National Park's Tenaya Lake—for the first time since 1930, old-timers said.

Mammoth Mountain's notorious winds, meanwhile, scattered volcanic pumice across the ski runs. "There were a couple of days when you just said, 'Wow, that was the worst skiing I have ever experienced,'" says Craig Albright, managing director of the resort's ski and snowboard school.

It didn't help that winter had apparently skipped the rest of the country as well. The TV news showed people sunning themselves in Central Park and frolicking in the Southern California surf. "The skiing got really good in March and April, but by then it was like somebody had let the air out of the tires," Albright says. "People put the skis back into the rafters and broke out the surfboard or the road bike."

The drought destroyed any hope of a quick recovery for Mammoth. Until then, speculation and snow had spared the town from complete ruin, but suddenly real estate prices were in free fall and the construction industry virtually disappeared. Starwood had bought out Intrawest at the peak of the real estate bubble; the $365 million deal was the largest in ski area history. Now, six years later, with the economy on the fritz and new condos sitting empty or unfinished, ski area owners were not only losing money on day-to-day operations, they were also paying thousands of dollars each day just to service their debts.

On Feb. 29 of last year, with skier visits 33 percent below budget and revenue down 29 percent from the previous year, Mammoth Mountain laid off 77 employees, almost a quarter of its full-time staff. Those who didn't lose their jobs took a pay cut, while some senior staff were demoted to the lift and bus lines. Locals dubbed it Black Wednesday.

"This is the mountains. Mother Nature owns the place, we just rent it," says Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory, the former college football player who made the Black Monday cuts more than 20 years ago, and who also wielded the axe last year. "What do you do? You have a good snowmaking system, and make sure you can variabilize your expenses"—that is, you set yourself up to quickly jettison employees and cut costs if business takes a turn for the worse.

When the final numbers were tallied, Mammoth Mountain cashed in on only 920,000 skier days last winter—almost 300,000 fewer than the previous year and the lowest in more than a decade. When summer came, Gregory announced that Mammoth would close the nearby June Mountain Ski Area, possibly for good; the local haven hadn't been a moneymaker for years.

And as the ski area went, so did the town. Mammoth Lakes gets 60 percent of its revenue from taxes on hotel rooms and condos, and another 10-plus percent from sales taxes. If tourists don't show, the town suffers. Facing a $2.8 million shortfall in its 2011-'12 budget, town leaders set about cutting services and trimming employee pay.

Looming over it all like a cornice ready to crack was a botched plan, cooked up a decade earlier by town leaders in league with Intrawest, to turn Mammoth into a weekend destination for skiers from around the country. The plan hinged on expanding the municipal airstrip to make way for huge 757 and 767 jets from Dallas and Chicago. It would have freed Mammoth from some of its dependence on Southern California and allowed it to better compete with Rocky Mountain resorts at a time when the number of skiers nationwide had flattened out.

In an effort to win millions of federal dollars for the airport expansion, however, the town reneged on its prior approval of a developer's plans to build a hotel, a gas station and a commercial center near the airport—amenities that the Federal Aviation Administration deemed incompatible with the increased air traffic. The airport expansion sputtered and the federal dollars never materialized, but the developer sued, claiming the town had breached its contract with him. After a string of court rulings, in the midst of Mammoth's winter of discontent, a judge ordered Mammoth Lakes to pay a jaw-dropping $42.5 million—nearly three times the town's annual operating budget.

On July 3, hobbled by the terrible winter season and unable to pay its debt to the developer, Mammoth Lakes followed a number of busted cities and filed for bankruptcy. "This place is just crippled by debt," says Ted Carleton, editor of Mammoth's small-time alternative newspaper, The Sheet. "We are California."

Life in Western mountain towns has always been tough. It's just how it is: You live in a place that's snowed in half the year, where the economy is bound to roller-coaster along with the whims of national and international markets, whether over minerals dug out of the earth or stocks that underwrite leisure time for tourists.

But Mammoth's experience offers an inside look at how contemporary ski towns work, and particularly at how vulnerable they are to the vagaries of the economy and the weather. In good times, these communities borrow and build like mad. Encouraged by mega real estate developers, resorts take on massive debt to fund improvements and compete in the "arms race" that pits state against state and resort against resort for a limited number of skier days. Then the economy turns south or the snow doesn't come—or it comes, but at the wrong time of the year—and the party ends in spectacular fashion.

And now, of course, there's climate change.

In contrast to the high, cold continental climate in the Rockies, famous for their weightless powder, the Sierra lies in a maritime climate, close to the ocean. Because the air is warmer, it can hold more water vapor—thus the Sierra's legendary dumps. But the snow is denser, wetter and warmer than the stuff you'd find in the Rockies. Colorado or Utah powder is 5 or 6 percent water, while the rest is air; "Sierra cement," as it is fondly known, can contain 40 percent water. "It's also closer to the melting point," says Williams, the CU snow hydrologist, and as a result, it is "way more sensitive to increases in air temperature."

As the climate warms—and it will warm further, even if we summon the will to attempt to do something to slow it—the snow line will steadily ascend the slopes. Because of their low elevations and warm climates, the maritime resorts will feel it first, says Jeff Dozier, a snow hydrologist at UC Santa Barbara who tracks the Sierra snowpack. In California, the first to be hit will be the ones on the West side, Dozier says, and in the Tahoe area.

"Mammoth is probably the most resilient of the California ski areas," Dozier says. "The main lodge is almost at 9,000 feet. But even then, you'll sometimes go up there in winter and cross the rain-snow boundary between 8,000 and 9,000 feet."

In the coming decades, that boundary will rise, meaning that lower elevations of the mountain will often see rain rather than snow. And when the temperatures are warm, the finest snow-making equipment in the world won't do any good.

Mammoth's newer base areas, which sit right around 8,000 feet, are equipped with gondolas and chairlifts that can carry guests to higher elevations. But there's another problem: Climate scientists also predict that we will continue to see more extreme weather events—the product of adding more heat and water vapor to the atmosphere—and wider gyrations from year to year. Climate models can't forecast the specifics with any accuracy, but the picture that emerges is of a chaotic climate that could produce a feast-and-famine cycle of back-to-back droughts and deluges.

Mammoth has survived droughts before, but it is not at all clear, particularly given its current financial state, that it could weather a sustained dry spell, or a climate that swings as wildly as it has recently.

Dozier, for one, believes that Mammoth Mountain can survive if it plays its cards right. "There's a lot of inter-annual variability anyway," he says. "Coupling the dry years with warmer temperatures—yeah, it might be a bit worse. Still, if you have any sort of business that depends on the weather, your business plan has to take into account that some years are going to be better and some are going to be worse."

But as the 2011-'12 season in Mammoth shows, it's not just the weather that impacts ski towns. No matter how much snow falls, if the skiers don't show up, the party never gets started. Part of that is driven by the economy, but part of it is the simple fact that, if the weather in urban areas is mild, would-be skiers and snowboarders just stay home.

"We worry less about whether it's snowing here than whether it's raining in L.A.," says Ron Cohen, Mammoth Mountain's director of government relations and environmental affairs. "If it's raining in L.A., people say, 'Oh, man, I bet it's dumping at Mammoth.' If it's beautiful down there, people aren't going to leave."

And if the skiers and snowboarders don't show, the local economy is dead. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, despite what George Shirk says, Mammoth's real lifeblood is not its namesake mountain—it's the masses from Southern California.

As if to highlight this fact, in the midst of Mammoth's troubled 2011-'12 ski season, the city of Los Angeles sued Mammoth Lakes, arguing that it owns the water rights to Mammoth Creek, the community's primary water source. You'll recall that Dave McCoy, who founded the ski area here, stumbled upon the snowy wonderland while scouting for the L.A. Department of Water and Power. He was part of a decades-long effort by the city to buy up land and water rights along the Eastern Sierra. The DWP pipes snowmelt through a series of aqueducts and reservoirs to 3.9 million thirsty Angelinos.

In recent years, the city has been forced to relinquish some of its water to maintain Mono Lake's ecological health and to restore parts of Owens Lake, which became a lifeless dustbowl in the 1920s, when the city began diverting water from the Owens River. Now, with climate models predicting a shrinking snowpack and heat waves in coastal cities, the DWP, an infamous bully around here, is pushing back on Owens Lake and other fronts. And it appears to be making an example of tiny Mammoth Lakes, to show other towns what could happen to them if they use water that the city claims for its own.

Greg Norby, the outgoing manager of the Mammoth Lakes Community Water District, says the district is in negotiations with the DWP, and he believes that the town's water source is secure. Nonetheless, the message is clear: L.A. giveth, and L.A. can take away.

Click here for Part 3.

This story first appeared in High Country News.