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Ski Resorts Welcome Early Snowfall In California's Sierra Nevada


You've been hearing for months about the El Nino current in the Pacific Ocean. Scientists now say the ocean temperatures there are the warmest on record. One forecaster has even predicted a Godzilla El Nino, dumping large amounts of rain and snow. Well, in California's Sierra Nevada range, it's looking like the El Nino is materializing. The mountains are getting some badly-needed snow. In some places, snow pack is more than 300 percent higher than average. It's still early. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the ski industry for starters is ready for some good news.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Every year, right about now, ski resorts run ads to try and drum up business for the coming season. Well, this year in California anyway, there's a twist.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, my God, is that Cody Townsend, pro skier extraordinaire?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Cody, what are you doing?

CODY TOWNSEND: Prepping for Godzilla Nino, duh. What else would I be doing?

ANDY WIRTH: Everybody in this entire region is absolutely grinning ear to ear.

SIEGLER: Andy Wirth is CEO of Squaw Valley and its sister resort, Alpine Meadows.

WIRTH: Everybody's very excited, and it's been a very cold welcoming to Godzilla El Nino.

SIEGLER: Everyone's so excited because resorts like Squaw had to close way early last season. Now they're boasting some of their earliest openings on record. About three and a half feet of snow has fallen on the Tahoe region alone so far. And all that cold weather Wirth is talking about, it's good for snowmaking, too. This is when resorts try to build up a good base of snow ahead of the busy holidays, which can be a make or break time.

WIRTH: And we have good reason to believe that the ridiculously resilient ridge that kept setting up off the coast of California won't set up, and its long-term nature has in the past for this winter. So we're relatively optimistic about how things have gone and certainly are going.

SIEGLER: Wirth blames that stubborn high-pressure ridge and the accompanying drought for a 25 percent drop in skiers these past few years. But this is California we're talking about, a big Western state where every snowflake and almost every drop of water is meticulously accounted for. So El Nino is about a lot more than skiing. Reservoirs here are perilously low. Cities are rationing water and some farmers are going out of business. And California's top water regulator, Felicia Marcus, has a qualifier about all this early-season snow.

FELICIA MARCUS: Well, it's great; it's unlikely to last throughout the course of the spring and the summer. We're going to need a whole wagon train of those storms, and we have no way to know how much we're going to get.

SIEGLER: Gov. Jerry Brown just extended his emergency water conservation regulations. And there's concern that all this hype around the El Nino could make Californians complacent about the drought. But even Felicia Marcus is thrilled to see all that snow falling on Tahoe and the other ski resorts.

MARCUS: I'll take every drop of precipitation and every flake of snow over a challenge in messaging as a problem.

SIEGLER: It's easy to see why when just a few months ago, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was an alarming 5 percent of average. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.


BLUE OYSTER CULT: (Singing) History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men. Godzilla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.