TAHOE CITY — There’s something disconcerting about life at Lake Tahoe these days.
It’s still winter, but visitors are renting bikes instead of snowshoes and kayaks instead of skis. Come summer — without last-ditch torrential rains — the lake level is expected to be at such a historic low that some marinas will have to dredge for boats to launch. Jumping off the end of a pier could result in a rock-hard landing.
California’s epic drought, entering its perilous fourth year, has combined with a pattern of warming temperatures to cast a “Twilight Zone” quality on one of the state’s most popular winter destinations and iconic landmarks.
“It’s bizarre what people are doing now. It’s so out of season,” said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center and a UC Davis professor. “Years like this are going to become more common.”
Abominable snow, man
In many ways, Lake Tahoe is California’s canary in the coal mine — at 6,200 feet. While our weather can quickly swing from one extreme to the other, the twin realities of the current relentless drought and steady warming over the past century are converging to create a remarkably different experience at the venerable — and vulnerable — lake. Everyone, from environmental agencies to businesses to tourists, is scrambling to adapt.
Just last weekend, instead of playing in the snow, Jim Robins’ 10-year-old daughter, Maggie, and her friends from Oakland were piling up rocks exposed by the lake’s dramatically receding water levels, dressing them with mittens she should have been wearing on the slopes.
“It’s a post-apocalyptic snowman,” said Robins, 43.
Long-term predictions by Lake Tahoe scientists warn that by the end of the century, summers could be two months longer and temperatures 8 degrees hotter than when Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. The dire effects of climate change present daunting challenges to local government officials, who have been patting themselves on the back for their efforts to Keep Tahoe Blue and reverse some of the damage caused by rampant lakeside development in the 1960s and ’70s.
But there’s nothing they can do to guarantee winter.
‘Almost-first snow trip’
Kings Beach librarian Anne Greenwood hears patrons longing for the lost season all the time.
Bay Area families playing the road game “who spots the snow first” are already driving higher into the mountains before declaring a winner. Over time, the Sierra’s freezing point, where rain turns to snow, is creeping higher.
That’s troubling for Donner Summit’s 7,200-feet ski resorts. While snow-making equipment and meticulous “snow management” has kept Sugar Bowl and Boreal Mountain open, neighboring Soda Springs, Donner Ski Ranch and Royal Gorge are closed. Sledding at nearby Kingvale, 1,000 feet lower just off Interstate 80, is limited to melting patches. The “magic carpet” that conveys sledders to the top of the bunny slope isn’t running.
“We probably won’t even un-bungee the sled,” said Casey Caietti, who drove up from Sacramento with her partner to introduce their 2-year-old daughter to snow last weekend. “We’ll put this in the baby book as ‘Your almost-first snow trip.’ ”
What may be surprising to many ski bums is that summer has always been a stronger tourist season for Lake Tahoe, accounting for about 60 percent of business. And thanks to bustling summers, “transient occupancy tax” revenues collected at hotels and other rentals have been rising. Last year set a record in tax collections in North Lake Tahoe, despite the dismal winter and no rafting on the Truckee River in the summer.
Over the past five years, winter visitors to 25 ski resorts in California and two in Nevada have plunged from a peak of 8 million in the 2010-2011 season — a big snow year — to 5.2 million last season, which was the third year of drought, according to the California Ski Industry Association. This year may end up slightly better because the wet December and a smaller storm in mid-February provided enough snow to attract big crowds at Christmas and President’s Day ski week.
But record warm temperatures in January and February and little snow forced Homewood Ski Resort to close early, for the second year in a row, and Squaw Valley canceled the World Cup ski and snowboarding races last week to focus its snow-making operations on runs for ticket-buying visitors. The Sierra snowpack on Friday was 17 percent of the historic average.
The Kings Beach Library, which canceled its Snowfest snowman-making competition last year, had just enough snow left this year under the shady eaves for the children to join forces — and make one snowman together.
Phil Ceasar, who mans Kingvale’s barren and virtually empty parking lot and has worked at Donner Summit ski resorts for 15 years, says he’s never seen it so dry.
“Everyone from here to the summit is hurting,” Ceasar said. “They’ve laid off ski instructors, lift operators. Most of my friends doing dirt work — building housing, roads, construction — they’re working and happy.”
New winter reality?
Though this year is extreme, experts say get used to it. Droughts will become more frequent and temperatures will continue to rise.
“This is just the beginning of a warming trend that will continue for several more decades,” said state climatologist Michael Anderson. “We’re getting less and less snow over time.”
Climate change projections just released by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and discussed at a climate conference in Pacific Grove last week, also predict that winter seasons will compress, while fall and spring will lengthen — “sort of squeezing winter from both directions,” said Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center, affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who attended last week’s conference.
The ski industry has responded by investing millions of dollars in snow-making equipment to not only extend their seasons but save dry seasons like this one. But they’re also adding summer activities on the slopes, including zip lines and mountain biking, in case summers really do become endless.
But Tahoe’s warm-weather attractions are also susceptible. The lack of rain means the Truckee River may not get any releases from Lake Tahoe this year — and that would mean another year without enough water in the river for summer rafting.
Keeping Tahoe blue
Already, regional planners are battling the various impacts of Lake Tahoe’s new reality, such as algae growth and invasive species that thrive in warmer water. And even when the drought eases, a future in which precipitation falls more as rain than snow means problems: Instead of snowmelt coursing through natural streams, rainwater on parking lots and rooftops will increase fine sediment flowing into the lake. And that damages the lake’s Holy Grail — its famous clarity.
The record-low Sierra snowpack levels over the past two winters also has devastated water supplies from Reno to Los Angeles and raised grave concerns about wildfires throughout the Tahoe region.
“For everyone, climate change is the gorilla in the room,” said Tom Lotshaw, a spokesman for Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
In 2012, for the first time in 25 years, the agency updated its long-term plan to reflect the warming trend.
Officials are inspecting the bottoms of boats to reduce the chances of nonnative species invading the lake, thinning ultradry forests to reduce the devastation of wildfires that send soot into the lake, encouraging more bikes and fewer cars, and razing old lakeside hotels and campgrounds to return those areas to forests and runoff-friendly marshes.
Riding out changes
The Tahoe Basin is particularly vulnerable because at 6,200 feet, the lake level is becoming a temperature “transition zone” between freezing snow and warmer rain. And that changes the traditional wintertime activities at the lake.
Just ask Chris Willard. The owner of Willard’s Sport Shop in Tahoe City began stocking rental bikes, kayaks and paddleboards during President’s Day weekend in mid-February.
“We sold out of bikes during ski week,” said Willard, who put her ski rental inventory on a super sale a month early. Kayak rentals have also been swift, but because the lake level is so low, her customers have to walk about 100 yards into the rocky lake bed and through exposed pier pilings before reaching the water.
“This wasn’t the original plan,” said Mike Angeley, 54, portaging his rental kayak out of the lake last weekend. While he and his wife, Karen Heitzman, moved from Boston to Tahoe City for the winter to ski — and they have enjoyed 40 days on the slopes, thanks to snow-making — his wife is still marveling at their Plan B.
“Here it is the beginning of March and I’m in a light sweater kayaking,” Heitzman said.
Snow dance of the future
Even the old tricks of the locals to egg on the snow gods — like putting off snowplowing contracts for their driveways and making winter plans to paint their homes — aren’t working.
“There’s always someone who does the snow dance,” said Ruth Schnabel, Snowfest’s executive director.
So imagining Lake Tahoe in 2099, when winters could be even shorter and summers will be longer, is a challenge in itself. But scientists say that barring science fiction-style technology — like shooting sulfuric acid into the stratosphere to reflect the suns rays away from the Earth — the warmer temperatures are “fated to keep coming,” said Redmond, the regional climatologist.
That doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the region’s future economy. As temperatures also rise in the Bay Area and Central Valley, Redmond said he wouldn’t be surprised to see “climate refugees” moving to the Sierra for the relatively cool climes, increasing property values but also putting more pressure on the environment.
Warm weather or cold, Tahoe will always be scenic — and ready to adapt.
“Even in Dubai, one of the hottest places on Earth,” Redmond said, “the Arabs have a place to go skiing — all indoors.”
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at twitter.com/juliasulek