Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014 | 2 a.m.
TAHOE CITY, Calif — On the shoreline at Lake Tahoe, where snow should be piled high by now, Valerie Chown and her family this week stumbled across a most unusual winter phenomenon.
There, on the beach, was a nude sunbather.
“It was crazy,” said Chown, 59, of Los Altos Hills, about the encounter at Secret Cove, where a few too many secrets were revealed, at least for this time of year.
High-country vacationers have been enjoying brilliant blue skies and 50-plus-degree temperatures throughout the holidays at Tahoe, where only patches of snow can be seen and ski conditions are simply atrocious. The Sierra sun has been so persistent that skiers and snowboarders are resorting to such summer activities as mountain biking, hiking, beach walking and, yes, sunbathing in the buff.
“It’s still beautiful,” said Chown as she watched her husband, son and daughter-in-law skip rocks on the lake, where the surrounding mountains reflected off the glassy blue surface. “You make the best of what you’ve got.”
Tahoe’s best soon won’t be good enough if it doesn’t hurry up and snow, according to experts. The mountains are mostly brown, ski resorts are only partially open and local businesses are beginning to feel the pain of what, so far, has been an exceedingly dry winter.
The dismal snowpack is a statewide concern, especially after what was, in many areas including San Francisco, the driest calendar year in recorded history.
The state’s frozen water supply, as snow is known to water-resources officials, is 19 percent of normal for this time of year, according to electronic measurements taken across the Sierra. This is the water that is going to be used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland and quench the thirst of many of California’s 38 million people when it melts in the spring.
Snow surveyors were planning another check Friday, but the results were obvious. There is, said David Rizzardo, chief of the snow surveys section and water supply forecasting for the state Department of Water Resources, little snow out there.
“We’ve gone through a summer now and an entire fall that was abnormally dry,” Rizzardo said. “We have a very real possibility of getting halfway through our wettest period and having only 10 or 15 percent of average snowpack. Hardly anyone can look at this and not raise an eyebrow.”
Fear of drought is percolating across California, especially given how far water levels are below average in the state’s reservoirs.
Lake Oroville, the primary storage reservoir for the State Water Project, is at 36 percent of its capacity, which is 57 percent of average for this time of year. The water project provides water to 29 public agencies, which supply more than 25 million Californians and irrigate nearly a million acres of farmland.
The state’s largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, is only 37 percent full, or 57 percent of normal. It is part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project.
Storms normally sweep over California in January and February, but Rizzardo said few winters that start off this dry make up the deficit. No significant rain or snow is forecast until at least the end of January.
“It has been so dry now for 13 months that the entire picture does not look very good,” Rizzardo said. “We’re talking about things we’ve never seen before.”
The extent of the problem can be seen pretty clearly in the Lake Tahoe area. Only thin patches of snow cover Donner Summit, where the snowpack is normally thickest. Donner Ski Ranch sits empty, its normally crowded slopes nothing but mud, dirt and tufts of grass. Still, people were making do, including Sampuran Khalsa, who zigzagged through exposed rock and patches of dirt at the Sugar Bowl ski resort.
“I’m from Florida, and this is the most snow we’ve had all winter,” said the 61-year-old resident of Altamont Springs, Fla., as he slid up to the lodge with his son, daughter and grandchildren. “I’ve been a surfer my whole life and it’s kind of the same thing. Sometimes you get waves and sometimes you don’t. But it is totally fun anyway. There is something to dodge.”
Business was down at most of the resorts and equipment rental shops, but a lot of people who had booked vacations months in advance were still slapping on skis. Local shops were making pretty good money in ski and board repairs on account of the rocks.
“If you don’t have rock skis, you will,” joked Herb Manning, the owner of Granite Chief Ski & Mountain Shop in Truckee, where business has been surprisingly brisk. “The skiing is actually great for kids. It’s man-made snow, but it’s not cold and the goggles don’t fog up.”
The nearby Back Country shop in Truckee was busily renting bicycles, an activity that Dan Shimmon said is normally nonexistent this time of year.
“We honestly have been surprised with the extent of the business considering the snow conditions,” Shimmon said. “It’s mostly people getting out there for exercise and fresh air.”
Bartenders at the West Shore Cafe and Inn in Homewood weren’t selling nearly as many chai Manhattans as they normally do, given the dismal conditions at the Homewood Mountain Ski Resort across the street. Amber Skallerud, the bartender, said the lack of snow has prompted some guests to cut their vacations short.
“It’s definitely slower than last year,” said Skallerud, as she served a goose-bump-removing Manhattan, complete with chai-infused Carpano Antica vermouth. “Hopefully it will dump in January.”