52 feet and counting: Lake Tahoe grapples with ‘ginormous’ snowpack
Bay Area News Group March 12, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Rather than use a yardstick, Deanne Maas measures each new snowstorm at her house atop Donner Summit by carefully examining the widening cracks in her drywall.
Some of them now reveal the underlying studs — signs that more than a dozen feet of snow piled outside her house are buckling the walls and roof of her home. She can hardly see outside anymore, as snow covers almost all of her windows.
“I feel like I live in a snow cave,” said Maas, 46.
Even for a place so accustomed to receiving some of the highest seasonal snowfall totals in the continental United States, this winter is a doozy. The Lake Tahoe area is buckling under hundreds of inches of snowfall amid one of its most powder-filled seasons on record, all part of a historic run of atmospheric rivers and punishing arctic blasts that have filled reservoirs, flooded cities and eased drought conditions across California.
The latest storms this weekend pushed the snowpack atop Donner Summit into fourth place on the list of snowiest seasons for the area, topping 624 inches since Oct. 1 at UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab, just a few miles from Maas’ house.
For her and other residents in the northern Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe areas, this winter represents a study in extremes, whipsawing between outright fatigue and unbridled joy at seeing the region finally blanketed in shimmering powder. While many homeowners voice deep anxiety about their roofs collapsing underneath the mounds of snow atop them, they also crack smiles while praising one of the best ski seasons in years.
“I’m tired — my back is killing me,” said Nelson Rodgers, 25, after shoveling three feet of snow from the front deck of his Tahoe City home. “I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. The snowpack is ginormous.”
Same goes for Maas, whose husband has done almost nothing over the last two weeks besides plow their football field-length driveway along Towle Mountain Drive near the crest of Interstate 80. Routinely-impassable road conditions have often forced the couple to miss work as a waitress and builder.
“I always say: Living on Donner Summit is like childbirth — you forget the pain in the summer,” Maas said.
That pain has been exceptional across the Sierra Nevada this year.
Storms this winter hit the southern Sierra Nevada with particular ferocity, piling snowpack to more than 250% of its seasonal average, according to the California Department of Water Resources. At times, those storms have turned deadly — a late February blizzard in San Bernardino County trapped residents for weeks, forcing families to ration their food, according to local media reports.
In the northern Sierra, a half-dozen buildings, including airport hangars, collapsed in recent weeks near Nevada City, said Mary Eldridge, a Cal Fire spokeswoman. In South Lake Tahoe, two commercial buildings recently collapsed, along with the overhangs for a couple of gas stations. The roof of another flat-roofed warehouse in Tahoe City also recently gave way.
As of Saturday morning, 52 feet of snow had fallen at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab atop Donner Summit, tying the 1981-1982 season for the fourth-highest total since the lab was created in 1946, said Andrew Schwartz, the lab’s manager and lead scientist.
Given forecasts for even more precipitation over the Sierra Nevada in the coming weeks, Schwartz expects this season to end up second only to the 1951-1952 winter season when 812 inches — or nearly 68 feet — of snow fell.
Stefanie Olivieri, 79, remembers that record winter in 1952 well. She recalled schools being shut down for an entire month when she was 9, and the “City of San Francisco” steam train getting stuck trying to cross the Sierra amid 12-foot snow drifts. The situation became so dire for passengers on that train — which quickly froze to the tracks after becoming wedged in the snow — that sled dogs were used to ferry a doctor to them, Olivieri recalled.
“We loved it as kids — we could just walk across the snow back right onto our roof,” said Olivieri, who now lives about a mile south of Truckee. “My house right now is pretty close to being totally buried. That’s what reminds me of ’52 — there’s a lot of snow here.”
But residents fear what could happen as warmer “Pineapple Express” storms from Hawaii and the Pacific tropics flow into the state, raising the levels that precipitation falls as rain, rather than snow, making the snowpack heavier. Demand for roof-clearing services is so great Placer County officials warned residents of price-gouging, citing one auspicious $20,000 quote.
On Friday afternoon, the bottom foot of snow atop Sydney Malafronte’s house in Tahoe City appeared a deep blue color, having been saturated with rain and melting snow. It forced her family to take refuge at a hotel last week after their house started groaning under its weight.
“The danger of it collapsing on the girls isn’t worth it,” Malafronte said.
County snow-clearing crews also are starting to strain from the workload.
“We’re pushing everything to the limit,” said Matt Randall, Placer County’s roads division manager, showing off a 100-foot pile of cleared snow. “The last couple weeks, we’ve had about 20 breakdowns.”
A decades-long resident of Tahoe City, Daniels has had two nights off in the last three months while clearing parking lots as the owner of Tahoe Marine and Excavating.
“It doesn’t come in six inches or eight inches — it comes in feet,” Daniels said.
All that powder has been both a blessing and a headache for ski resorts after years of drought and substandard snowpack levels.
Last winter, the Palisades Tahoe resort south of Truckee received just 350 inches of snow. This year, it has measured nearly double that amount — with more than 115 inches of it coming since March 1.
Such wild totals have repeatedly forced ski resorts to close or significantly limit their operations, often due to high winds, dangerous avalanche conditions or chair lifts becoming buried in snow.
“When you’re in the ski industry, you don’t ever like to think there’s too much snow,” said Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California. “But we’ve reached that point a couple times this year.”
Still, all that snow may have a side benefit — resorts like Palisades Tahoe say they plan to operate into May, possibly longer.
Skiers also rave about the light, fluffy snow powder that’s fallen this year that can be blissful to shred, creating a buoyant, floating feeling, unlike the wet “Sierra cement” that normally blankets these mountains.
It’s all summoned gobs of tourists from the Bay Area and Nevada to the region, snarling traffic and causing hours-long traffic backups.
“People are definitely jazzed to be up here,” said Rachel Fritz, 31, manager of the Arbor Tahoe snowboard shop. “It’s almost a little intense. Truckee was not built for this swarm of people to come up.”
But longtime residents recall mass exoduses after big snowfall years, watching in amusement as people put off by a true Sierra Nevada winter call it quits. And some wonder if the same will happen this year.
“You have to be prepared, if you live in this community, to deal with big winters,” Olivieri said. “I’m a little crazy — I love it. I think it’s beautiful.”
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