Tourists rare as snow this winter in drought-stricken Tuolumne

Martha Weathers looks at her trees at The Rivers Resort Rentals in Tuolumne County on Thursday. Weathers runs the cabin rental company and says the dry winter has been one of the worst for business in her 20 years as manager.
Martha Weathers looks at her trees at The Rivers Resort Rentals in Tuolumne County on Thursday. Weathers runs the cabin rental company and says the dry winter has been one of the worst for business in her 20 years as manager. aalfaro@modbee.com

The hope was that the drought was over after December storms dumped snow in the Sierra. The Dodge Ridge Ski Area and Leland High Sierra Snow Play opened in mid-December.

Throngs of visitors from the Bay Area, the Northern San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere came. And the restaurants, hotels and inns, stores, gas stations, and other businesses on the Highway 108 corridor leading to Dodge and Leland rejoiced.

Then the snow stopped.

Leland – where people ride inner tubes downhill – closed Jan. 6, and Dodge closed Jan. 20 because they did not have enough snow. And the rush of visitors turned into a trickle.

California is in its fourth year of drought, and the impact is being felt in this rural, tourist-dependent county. Visitors spent $192 million in 2012, the latest year for which Visit California has data.

“It’s been challenging,” Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lisa Mayo said. “There are a lot of businesses that are dependent on having that snow for people coming here to play.”

Dodge and Leland are big draws. During a busy season, Dodge gets 160,000 to 200,000 “ski visits” and Leland attracts 30,000 people, primarily families with young children who spend the night in the county.

The lack of snow has meant fewer hotel room bookings, motorists buying gas, customers in stores and restaurants, and cabin rentals.

Martha Weathers, who with her husband, Tom, manages The Rivers Resort Rentals in Strawberry, said Thursday that two of her 10 cabins were booked for this weekend.

“We could have cannon practice on (Highway) 108 and not hit anything, except for a dead tree,” she said in response to how business has been.

“If we had some snow, (the cabins) would fill up.”

Last winter was especially tough. Dodge was open for 33 days and Leland for 32. A normal season for them is about 120 days.

Leland owner Lance Vetesy wants to put in snow-making equipment and is working on getting state permission to use the water in the 12-acre lake on his property for that.

“It’s imperative it goes in next season,” he said. “We can’t absorb another winter like this.”

2013 brought own woes

Besides the drought and lack of snow, Twain Harte took another hit in August when Twain Harte Lake had to be drained after natural forces caused the granite rock near the dam to crack and shift.

Officials say draining the private lake has hurt cabin rentals and other businesses. Twain Harte Lake Association General Manager Dennis Wyckoff said he recently met with the contractor who will repair the dam. “We are shooting for Memorial Day, rain permitting,” he said when asked when the lake could reopen.

Tourism also took a blow in 2013 with the Rim fire, which started in mid-August near Groveland and consumed more than 250,000 acres of forest before it was contained in October. The fire also spewed smoke and ash throughout the county and scared off tourists.

Then came the 16-day federal government shutdown in October 2013, which resulted in the closure of Yosemite National Park and was another blow for Groveland, which sits along Highway 120 on the way to the park.

But there is good news.

Yosemite Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce President Tom Hernandez said he believes tourism is up along his corridor. He said the area is working toward making itself more of a destination for visitors. For instance, the Groveland Area Partnership is putting together a triathlon for this year.

No snow means fewer people in Sonora’s hotels who come for the skiing. But Sonora remains a draw with its downtown shops and restaurants, said Shirley Sarno, owner of the Gunn House Hotel downtown and executive director of the Sonora Chamber of Commerce.

She said Sonora is an easy weekend or day trip from the Valley and Bay Area, and she added that it is less expensive than other tourist spots.

Fire’s silver lining

As for the Rim fire, it had a silver lining.

In the aftermath of the fire and government shutdown, Tuolumne County expected to receive $500,000 less in sales and hotel taxes for the balance of that fiscal year, which ended June 30. But the actual loss was considerably less.

County officials say it was because of the influx of firefighters and other first responders who fought the blaze and the people who showed up after the fire was out to assess the damage. They stayed in hotels, ate in restaurants and shopped in stores.

The county is expecting another boost when it embarks on several major public works projects at its new Law and Justice Center campus. These projects will bring in skilled workers who will rent apartments, stay in hotels, buy groceries and make other purchases.

Construction is expected to start in spring on the first project, a $14 million Mother Lode Regional Detention Facility. Work is expected to take a year. The county expects to break ground in the fall on a $3.5 million transit transfer station at the campus.

Within a couple of years, the county expects to build a roughly $40 million jail at the campus, and the state will build a new courthouse there.

And winter is far from over.

As of Friday, this weekend’s storm was expected to bring rain and 1 to 2 feet of snow at about 8,000 feet elevation. Dodge Ridge could get snow Monday, but not enough for it to open.

Dodge Ridge President and CEO Sally Helm said she is optimistic the resort will reopen. She said nine of the National Weather Service’s 10 long-range forecasts are predicting a return to a normal winter and more snow. Leland also will reopen if enough snow falls.

And then there is summer.

Many of the businesses along the Highway 108 corridor that have struggled through the dry winters say last summer was good for them, and they expect that to continue this summer. Summer is their busiest time, with kids out of school and families on vacation.

“It’s easy to make money in the summertime – you just need to be open,” said Andy Cohen, owner of Andy’s Mountain Grill in Mi-Wuk Village.

Some of that is because of Pinecrest Lake Resort, which is near Dodge Ridge. Unlike some of the lower-level lakes and reservoirs in the area, Pinecrest had lots of water last summer. And lots of visitors. The resort attracts about 350,000 people annually.

“We’ve seen less business in the winter months. However, our summer seasons have been good,” said Heidi Lupo, an official with the resort. “Pinecrest has been one of the only lakes in our region that has been full and remains full during the summer season.”

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.