An Inconvenient Slope

Big Bears ski resorts are covered in snow despite a chronic lack of natural snowfall. So where are the crowds? Dont blame global warmingblame the media

Kun isn't the only one around town pooh-poohing Nourok's campaign. Nourok recently addressed the Big Bear board of a county agency and "immediately after the meeting, one of the board members came up to me and said these reports of global warming were just made up by a bunch of liberal scientists, and they learn what they learn from liberal universities, and it's all just a liberal conspiracy that's all about liberals taking away people's money."

As chairman of the Big Bear Democratic Club's environmental committee, Nourok is quite used to the dreaded "L" word.

"This is an extremely conservative town," he said. "When you think of mountain communities, you think there must be a lot of tree huggers. But the words 'Sierra Club' are dirty words for the vast majority of people in Big Bear."

In a town of a bit more than 5,000 people, his Sierra Club meetings draw only 15 people.

"Everything is sort of backwards in Big Bear," Nourok says. "When you have a ski area owner out of sync with the rest of his own industry, it is so twisted. The majority here are Republicans brainwashed by the federal government. The White House isn't even as anti- the global warming issue as these people.

"I'm trying to save these people from themselves."

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Big Bear Lake is an entirely snow-fed reservoir that, at optimal level, is about seven miles long (measuring from east to west), 2.5 miles wide at its widest measurement and generally about a mile wide everywhere else. Western settlers came upon a small reservoir when they were hunting Indians and, noticing the black bears frolicking in the waters, dubbed it "Bear Lake" and the surrounding area "Bear Valley." Orange growers dammed it up in 1884 to help irrigate their orange groves in the San Bernardino Valley below, creating what is now Big Bear Lake.

Townspeople—as part of the Big Bear Municipal Water District (MWD)—own the land under the lake, and the district manages the water level. But the water in the lake is actually owned by the private Redlands company Bear Valley Mutual Water, which spun out of the orange-growers association that built the dams. Bear Valley Mutual only supplies water for recreational uses, and through a longstanding deal, Big Bear Mountain Resorts gets a yearly allotment of water for snow making. Residents and businesses next to the lake must import water from somewhere else.

Big Bear Mountain Resorts maintain that if their full allotment was ever used, the lake level would only drop four inches. And half of the water the resort buys returns to the lake once the snow melts, according to the resort operators and MWD general manager Sheila Hamilton.

Four inches—or two if you give half of it back—does not seem like much now. But after years of recent, brutal droughts, the lake water level dropped as much as 17 feet. At its driest, the lake was surrounded by formerly lake-front homes propped up on stilts planted in the dirt, with huge swaths of land between them and the receded shoreline.

A big, wet winter three seasons ago brought the water level back up within two feet of normal. After two more dry years (and no relief in sight this winter), the lake level is now down about three feet.

"We anticipated it would be full by now, but the winter has not been kind," Hamilton said. "It's been cold, just not wet."

But she sees no global-warming trends locally.

"The lake seems to work in 10-year cycles, where you'll have five-year cycles where it's pretty consistent and then six years of drought," she said.

She is certain of one trend, however.

"Without the lake, there would be no snow making."


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Kun predicts that Snow Summit—juiced by Big Bear Lake—will have enough man-made snow to remain open through April, even if no more natural snow falls in late winter. That must make owners of other Southern California ski areas envious. Without natural snowfall, Snow Valley and Mountain High near Wrightwood must make white stuff with limited supplies of imported water kept in on-site reservoirs.

"There were a host of ski areas in these mountains in the 1930s and '40s, and they eventually either evolved into resorts or they folded," Kun says. "The reason for our success is snow making. In the '50s, we were completely dependent on natural snowfall. If it didn't snow, we didn't open."

Snow Summit, which opened in 1952, pioneered snow making in 1963. Essentially, the right combination of water and compressed air is shot into the atmosphere at optimal temperatures to trick Mother Nature into making snow that drops on the bare slopes.

"Don't even talk to us about 'artificial snow,'" Kun warns. "It drives us crazy."

As signs on his chairlift poles advertise, "Man-made snow is real snow, only man made."

Steel pipes extend underground from the resort directly into Big Bear Lake. The water is stored in a million-gallon tank at the resort's base and 5- and 10-million gallon tanks in the mountains above. The resort can draw 5,000 gallons of water a minute, which compares to the three to five gallons of water per minute trickling out of your residential garden hose.

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