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There was a time when drought in the American West could poverty or even death. People have far more resources today. So the severe drought in the American West is not an immediate matter of life or death.
It is, however, a reality that alters daily life, from ski slopes in the Pacific Northwest, to lawns in Las Vegas. The longer the drought persists, the more it forces people to adapt, steadily redefining what it means to live in the states we're about to visit: California, Nevada and Oregon.
We begin with NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Up on Mount Ashland, in Southern Oregon, here's what drought sounds like...
(SOUNDBITE OF UNLOCKING OF DOOR)
GOLDMAN: Kim Clark unlocks the entrance to the bar in the Mount Ashland Ski lodge, a bar, he says, that would be rocking on a normal late-January, Friday afternoon like this one. Clark is the ski area's general manager. He's leading me on a you-can-hear-a-pin-drop tour of the facility, through another locked door, outside, onto a deserted, sun-splashed deck. It's about 100 feet from one of the mountain's four chairlifts.
KIM CLARK: Normally, we'd be looking at about six feet of snow out there and lots of happy, smiling faces. Right now, we're looking at the lift not running and dirt.
GOLDMAN: In its 50 years of operation, the Mount Ashland Ski Area has opened, on average, December 10th. Now it's getting perilously close to its record for latest opening, February 17th, back in the 1970s. Snow depth on the mountain has hovered between zero and two inches. Clark says they need to have three feet.
The culprit - wreaking havoc not just on Mount Ashland, but other Oregon ski resorts and the drought-stricken state in general - is a ridge of high pressure that's been parked since late September, blocking rain and snowstorms. A meteorologist dubbed it the ridiculously resilient ridge. Kim Clark has his own name.
CLARK: Great ridiculously resilient ridge, or GRRR.
GOLDMAN: Clark jokes, but it hurts. Mount Ashland, a community-owned nonprofit, has lost a million dollars in income. A paid staff of nearly 130 is down to five, working part-time.
The drought's impact on ski resorts, like Mt. Ashland, is only part of the hit on recreation and the businesses that serve: snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, snow-shoers - all no-shows, as well.
CAROLYN HILL: What's heartbreaking to me is hearing from a supplier up in the mountains who has two months to make all their money for the year.
GOLDMAN: Carolyn Hill is CEO of Travel Southern Oregon.
HILL: Some of that time's already passed, and it's not coming back.
GOLDMAN: Of course, when it comes to drought, what happens in the mountains doesn't stay in the mountains. Snowpack fills rivers and reservoirs below, which already are hurting. A state climatologist says throughout Oregon, stream flows are 10 percent of normal.
But this week, a glimmer of hope: The rains have come. In Southern Oregon, happy reports of flooding on the roads. And up on Mount Ashland, Kim Clark is hearing there could be as much as 10 inches of snow - could be. At this point, he says, he'll take anything and everything.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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