Fears loom over upcoming snowmelt in eastern Sierra Nevada

The snow has started falling early and hard this season at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, and the record amounts don’t look like they’ll stop anytime soon.

As ski operators in the eastern Sierra Nevada hope snow accumulation will keep them open until July 4, the storms have added a dangerous edge to life in nearby towns as residents face impenetrable snow banks, high winds, road closures, avalanches and flooding.

In the worst-case scenario, massive snowmelt over the next few weeks could flood towns along US Highway 395, which winds along the base of snow-capped Sierra peaks that reach up to 14,000 feet. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials fear record runoff in Mono and Inyo counties could overwhelm the city’s water system.

“Getting significant rain over snow is a scary proposition,” Inyo County Supervisor Jeff Griffiths said Friday when the first of several predicted atmospheric rivers swept through the area, triggering avalanche and gust warnings. 120 mph wind. “We have at least two more storms coming in the next 10 days, so the big concern is that all the precipitation on the mountains will fall at the same time.”

This week Mammoth Mountain – the huge extinct volcano that catches freshly brewed storms like a sail – had recorded a stunning 672 inches of snow at the summit and 528 inches at the main lodge of its resort complex, which attracts one million skiers each year.

“This is already one of our biggest snowfall years ever – and we still have many months to go,” said Lauren Burke, spokeswoman for the resort about 300 miles north of Los Angeles. . “We expect to get another 100 inches of snow within 10 days, which could put us above our all-time high of 668 inches – or about 55½ feet – at the main lodge.”

With the eastern Sierra Nevada grappling with 243% of its normal snowpack for this time of year, the DWP was scrambling to avoid the predicted snowmelt from its century-old water infrastructure in the valley. ‘Owens of Inyo County, about 60 miles south of Mammoth Lakes.

Mammoth Mountain's 11,000-foot summit recorded 672 inches of snow.

Mammoth Mountain’s 11,000-foot summit recorded 672 inches of snow.

(Peter Morning / Mammoth Mountain)

“Only two of the past 100 years have seen runoff greater than this year’s estimate,” said Anselmo Collins, the water system’s senior deputy general manager. “Right now, DWP crews are primarily focused on maintaining system capacity by clearing sand traps, canals and other waterways and preparing areas for expected water flows.”

Meanwhile, in Mammoth Lakes, a quaint town of 7,500 in Mono County, residents are struggling to adjust to what has become a strange world of frozen precipitation piled as high as the rooftops.

Street names have been hand painted onto snow walls where street signs are no longer visible. Owners clad in thick coats and wellies experience the deafening roar of snowblowers between 20-foot-high embankments that test the limits of equipment. Underfoot, the snow has turned to ice thick enough to skate on.

Local meteorologist Howard Scheckter stands outside his home in Mammoth Lakes.

Local meteorologist Howard Scheckter stands outside his home in Mammoth Lakes.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

“This is the harshest winter I’ve had since I moved here in 1978,” said Howard Scheckter, a real estate broker who also serves as the area’s weather sage, posting daily forecasts on his Mammoth Weather website. “The problem is that the snow continues to pile up, as this winter has been exceptionally cold with very little runoff.”

Nodding sullenly at 15ft walls of snow on either side of the narrow lane he lives in, Scheckter said: ‘This is a dangerous situation, and there will be impacts, including structural damage to homes and businesses buried under deeper and deeper layers of heavy snow.”

A week ago, a three-day storm triggered power outages in communities north of Bridgeport, about 50 miles north of Mammoth Lakes, after several large avalanches buried a half-mile stretch off Hwy 395 over Mono Lake and north of Lee Vining, a gateway in warmer months to Yosemite National Park. The park, much of which is buried in record snow, has been closed since February 25.

Separately, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an emergency declaration in Inyo County allowing the DWP and other agencies to take the necessary steps to protect the Los Angeles Aqueduct from destructive floodwaters rushing from the High Sierra.

As it did in 2017, when record rainfall ended a five-year drought in the region, the DWP plans to reinforce ditches and stream banks with rocks and boulders and raze new berms to protect the plumbing mesh and acres of gravel beds. he built as part of his $2.5 billion dust control project on Lake Owens, which LA drained to quench its thirst.

DWP is already cascading snowmelt down slopes in areas of the Owens Valley.

“We began preparing our land for spreading in December,” Collins said, “based on lessons learned from the extremely high runoff recorded in 2017.”

A cabin is buried in the snow at Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth Lakes.

A cabin at Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth Lakes is buried. The lodge, at 8,600 feet, is expecting another 100 inches of snow this week.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Rain slammed into the Long and Owens valleys on Friday, dumping floodwaters into normally dry ditches and arroyos and throwing mud and debris onto major transportation routes, including the Highway 395, parts of which were temporarily closed throughout the day.

Avalanche and evacuation warnings were issued for the unincorporated mountain community of Aspendell and the Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians, which operates a casino and shopping complex north of Independence.

“The important message we’re trying to get across to the public today is a stark one: Travel is strongly discouraged this weekend,” said Inyo County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carma Roper. “There’s a good chance you won’t get to your destination due to highway closures due to heavy snowfall and/or flooding. Don’t plan to use this weekend to take your family on vacation or entertain yourself outdoors.

Amid warnings of even more severe flooding to come when the weather begins to warm, Inyo County officials, emergency responders and leaders from the region’s seven Paiute tribes have drawn up evacuation plans. .

“In the event of a disaster, our people would be moved 15 miles north to the Bishop Paiute Tribe Reservation near Bishop,” said L’eaux Stewart, chairwoman of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, whose 400 members reside in a flood plain.

“Right now all of our streams and streams are raging,” she added. “So one of the main concerns is to collect the sandbags to hold the water and to clean up the old canals and the water diversions.”

The Eastern Sierra region has a history of destructive flooding.

In 1982 Main Street in Mammoth Lakes was submerged under 2 feet of water. Shops closed and the roofs of five mobile homes collapsed under the weight of rain and snow.

In 1989, downpours driven by 60 mph winds carved out the earth that fortified a 1,000-foot section of an aqueduct near the community of Cartago and closed a 63-mile stretch of Highway 395. heavy rains also buried two miles of a ditch under approximately 100,000 cubic meters of debris.

In 2008, a massive debris flow along the South Fork of Oak Creek, just north of Independence, destroyed 25 homes and wiped out all stock at one of California’s oldest hatcheries.

Five years later, mud and debris triggered by unusually heavy rains and flash flooding have been blamed for the sudden and massive death of fish and other aquatic life along part of the Lower Owens River. south of Lone Pine.

A worker is dwarfed as he shovels snow from a roof in Mammoth Lakes.

A worker shovels snow from a roof in Mammoth Lakes.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The current predicament of the Eastern Sierra carries a certain meteorological irony. Just six months ago, drought-stricken residents and business owners in Mammoth Lakes — sometimes called Los Angeles’ most remote suburb — would have been relieved to know the March forecast would call for rain and sleet. the snow.

“It’s been snowing here every few days since November, and people have had enough of it,” said Steve Johnson, 69, an independent contractor who’s lived in Mammoth since 1972. “We can’t travel where we might need to, and that makes daily routines difficult – so we fall behind in everything.

For Johnson, that means he’s a month behind on building a custom home.

“No sooner have I cleared enough snow to allow my crew to get back to work on the house,” he sighed, “when it’s buried in snow again.”

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