The Great Winter of 2011

Making left turns on some city streets up here in North Lake Tahoe has become about as challenging as navigating a double black diamond run at Squaw Valley.  There’s no visibility over the snow piled up on the media so you can’t see whether cars are coming from the other direction.  Triggering the left turn light at an intersection may require you to climb part way up an icy slope.

It’s the winter of ’11 – one to tell your grandchildren about.  More than 50 feet of snow has deluged the high country, despite a nearly dry January.  No wetter winter has been recorded since 1950-51.

What these numbers mean to California is the end of drought restrictions and the release of much higher percentages of state-controlled Water Project Allocations.  The drought’s official end was announced by Governor Jerry Brown’s office on March 20.  The announcement noted that the state Division of Water Resources (DWR) would be releasing at least 70 percent of requested state water project totals this year versus 50 percent in 2010, 40 percent in 2009, and only 35 percent back in 2006.

     “DWR is conservative in its projections since farmers and others can suffer if expected amounts cannot be delivered,” according to the news release.  “In November, DWR’s first estimate for 2011 was that it would be able to deliver 25 percent of requests.  The initial estimate — always low because it is made before the months of heaviest precipitation — was raised to 50 percent in December, and more recently rose to 60 percent in January.”

DWR Director Mark Cowin called the development “beneficial for California’s farms, businesses and communities” but reminded residents “to practice sensible water use and conservation as we transition to warmer weather.”

For Sierra skiers, 2011 was either a dream come true or a nightmare scenario – depending on whether you love powder skiing or feel the opposite.  For powder hounds, this was the year of bragging rights for California and especially Lake Tahoe resorts, whose snow conditions are sometimes held up to ridicule by Rocky Mountain aficionados.  Not so for 2011.  Inventories of powder skis at local ski shops were down to the dregs as everyone tried to get a pair of wide boards with reverse camber technology or the even newer “rocker” tips and tails.  Any way to float over 30 inches of fresh powder rather than letting your skis bury themselves and watch your friends zoom off ahead of you. 

“There are no friends on powder days,” a fellow skier yelled to me when he saw me floundering in the snow.  “What does that mean?” I asked.  “Don’t expect anyone to wait for you to get out of that mess – we’re all skiing.”  And he zoomed away.

It’s been a year for the record and the picture books.  Information signs have been buried under the snow.  There are ski lifts that can’t operate because some of the chairs are immobilized under several feet of snow.  And there’s the sheer beauty of Lake Tahoe surrounded by snow-laden mountains.  This has been a winter to remember.