New Mexico is on track to experience its driest two year period on record. Any precipitation is a good thing in the Southwest, but winter snow accumulation is especially important. Until recently the snow pack has been almost non-existent and if the trend continues, the resulting economic impacts could ripple throughout the state.
Last Saturday, my husband, Jon, and I loaded our car with ski gear and drove north to Vadito, New Mexico. Our destination...the Sipapu Ski Resort.
Jon and I had been looking forward to this day for more than 8 months. In recent years, we would have already gotten a few days of skiing in, but this year the snow pack was late...very late. And the only reason we found ourselves on the slopes that day was through the wonders of modern technology.
"We're skiing on basically 100% manmade snow" Sipapu's general manager, John Paul Bradley, told me, and he's got very mixed feelings about that statistic. Because while he's proud of the resort's significant snow making capabilities, he says he'd much rather see mother nature covering the trails with snow.
"If we were standing on the mountain side you would pretty much have a white ribbon of snow coming down the mountain and everything else is brown" he said, "hopefully tomorrow that changes"
And it did. A snow storm arrived the next day, providing many New Mexico resorts with about a foot of snow. And while Bradley says he's pretty stoked about the new supply of fresh powder, it's still very unusual to see a snowpack arrive so late.
He says, "It seems very bizarre. The only normal thing with weather now is that it's unpredictable. So last month it was dry and hopefully this month it's the opposite and super cold and wet. We're in the ski industry, we have to be optimistic, that's part of the requirement. You just have to optimistic."
Which is probably a good thing, because while their manmade snow will get the resort through the early season, it's won't be enough to keep guests coming in large numbers through the winter.
But UNM economics professor, Dr. Janie Chermak, says the economic impacts of a good snowpack in New Mexico reach much farther than just ski resort staffing.
She tells me, "It's not just the ski resort, its also the town. So it's the ski instructors and the people who work at the ski areas. But it's also the hotels and the lodges and everything that's peripheral. So if you don't have a good ski season, and you're a tourist town, you've lost at least one season of your livelihood."
In fact, a new study released by the nonprofit groups Protect Our Winters and the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that winter tourism nationwide has experienced an estimated $1 billion in losses and up to 27,000 fewer jobs over the last decade thanks to changing snowfall patterns and warmer global temperatures.
According to Chermak, not having a normal amount of water can affect the economy throughout the year, because when the spring rolls around, significant accumulation becomes even more important, as most of the state's irrigation water comes from that melting snow. And a low snowpack could mean a shortened irrigation season. Take alfalfa for example.
"So it kind of has this increasing effect of if we don't have enough water, we don't grow enough alfalfa, which means we don't have enough alfalfa. Then you don't have the livestock that eats the alfalfa, which means you don't get the revenue from livestock as well. So it's just this cumulative effect that goes on."
National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Polasko says it's too early to tell whether or not the snowpack will reach normal levels in time for spring runoff, but he says it is a little weird to not see any snow accumulation until mid-December.
He says, "The snowpack, at this point, is surprisingly disappointing. I wouldn't say this a new normal necessarily, the trends in terms of precipitation are much more fickle."
Polasko adds that droughts are cyclical and precipitation levels will probably rebound at some point, but he says what could really cause long term problems are rising temperatures and global warming.
"The temperature trends keep going up, and up, and up, and we're having shorter and more compressed snow seasons, and that may have a major effect on the amount of water availability."
According to Polasko, slower is better with snow melt, no matter how much accumulation a mountain sees. A longer winter would mean the snow stays on the hills longer and it's easier for irrigators to use it. He adds that timely spring rain and runoff significantly reduce the risk of wildfires.
And when I asked Polasko if Jon and I would be skiing on any natural snow soon, he said, "Well there's a fair chance that Friday offers the opportunity for another storm. So if you cross your fingers, we're starting to get back into that storm track"
So cross my fingers I did...which looks like it might have worked, as more snow is finally in the forecast.