KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's been snowy and cold this winter in parts of the country that don't usually see snow - the Gulf Coast, the Southeast. But here in the West, snowfall is at a record low. That is a problem for ski resorts and a longer-term worry for water managers. Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF SNOW CANNON)
GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Machines whip up air and water, misting out snow on the slopes above Keystone's River Run Village. This year, snow making is a necessity for many resorts.
DAMON MILLER: Ski runs have exposed rocks and trees.
HOOD: Denver resident Damon Miller has skied for decades. He usually gets his first run in before Christmas - not this season. His first outing came mid-January.
MILLER: And even when you look around at the mountains and the trees around here, it's obviously low coverage compared to what it normally is. So yeah, it's pretty apparent.
HOOD: Vail Resorts, which owns Keystone, reported an 11 percent drop in visits across its North America sites. Snowfall totals at the end of 2017 at some New Mexico, Colorado and Utah ski areas were the lowest in more than 30 years. And there are other worries for weather watchers.
RUSS SCHUMACHER: We've remained quite a bit warmer than average, even for January.
HOOD: Russ Schumacher is the Colorado state climatologist. The state recorded the third warmest year on record in 2017.
SCHUMACHER: Where we have seen some significant snowstorms, it still remained relatively warm.
HOOD: States like New Mexico and Utah have also seen warm starts to winter. Hot weather and low snowpack are a historically bad combination that worries water managers across the West. Jeff Lukas is with the Western Water Assessment, which tracks weather and water supply.
JEFF LUKAS: Your senses are triggered, but you don't push the alarm bell yet.
HOOD: Lukas is watching not just snowpack levels but the water in that snowpack. For him, snow is like a bank account for the arid West. Every year, water managers capture melting snow. They store it in reservoirs. But when snow starts running off early or evaporates in warm weather or there's not enough of it, it's a huge problem.
LUKAS: It's unlikely that we'll get back up to average over the next three to four months and end up with a peak snowpack that's near normal. So basically all of our potential futures are below average, and the question is, how far below?
HOOD: What happens in Colorado is of great interest to 19 other states. Many of the states west of Colorado drink and farm with water that starts as snowpack in the Rockies. Ashley Nielson is with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. For 2018, one predictor of water levels is showing a well-below-average year. Nielson says the ranking could improve, but it's prompting questions.
ASHLEY NIELSON: It seems like people are just more - they're more interested in the day-to-day changes earlier on this year than maybe in an average year.
HOOD: In the past few months, the drought has deepened across the interior west states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKIER PASSING)
HOOD: At Keystone, skier Damon Miller squints into the late afternoon sun. He's got a bit of parting advice for others who haven't yet gone out this season. Don't go off the trails.
MILLER: I'm going to have to get my skis tuned tomorrow (laughter).
HOOD: Wait. Wait a minute. What?
MILLER: You hit a few rocks and bare spots, so it's tough going up there.
HOOD: Keystone saw some snow in mid-January from a storm that moved across the West, but water managers say a whole lot more is needed to end the drought. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Keystone, Colo.
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