‘Madness in the natural world’: Snow overruns Mammoth Lakes

At least 60 feet of snow have hit Mammoth Lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, burying homes, cars, and propane tanks. Photo by Shutterstock.

At least a dozen winter storms have brought 60 feet of snow to parts of Mammoth Lakes, home to the Mammoth ski area in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s created a paradise for skiers, but a nightmare for everyone else — closing highways, collapsing roofs, and exploding propane tanks. Now that it’s spring, snow is starting to melt, and a new disaster is on the horizon: flooding. KCRW talks to Mammoth Lakes Mayor John Wentworth about the situation on the ground.

The city has seen a snowfall record, Wentworth tells KCRW, and it’s shaping up to house the biggest snowpack since the first half of the 20th century. 

“Even for … diehard skiers like myself and others who ski in the resort and ski in the backcountry, the old adage applies — there can be too much of a good thing,” he says. “We got a lot of rain [and] snow. I think that's the point where everybody started saying, ‘Okay, we're passing over into some other world here, which is not as friendly, not as inviting, and not as much fun.’”

At least a dozen feet of snow smother the yard – and propane tank – of Mammoth Lakes Mayor John Wentworth. Photo courtesy of John Wentworth. 

Wentworth says Mammoth Lakes has always welcomed snow and has prepared for extenuating circumstances, but these storms have exceeded all of that.

“You start getting into real stressors on infrastructure. And for most of the heat in this town comes from propane, which is an individual propane unit that's associated with an individual building. And when the snowpack gets the way it is, you have to start really thinking about the connections between your propane tank and your building and your house.”

He explains that the snow on the ground in the Sierra Nevadas acts much like glacial snow. Its dynamic nature can cause great damage, including getting so heavy that it can break propane pipes, causing explosions.

“It might take out your deck. It might mangle your porch furniture, it might do something unfortunate to your snowblower. So it is a dynamic phenomenon. And in the winter, if you have maybe six inches or something, some kind of a connection with your propane tank — hopefully it's buried underground and it comes up and it goes into your house — the snowpack can exert itself.”

The town’s financial situation has also been tenuous this season. Once highway 395 — the main road in and out of Mammoth Lakes — was forced to close, Wentworth says business dropped off. Business is back, but he says it’s unclear what impact it’ll have down the line. 

Once warmer temperatures hit and snow starts to melt, Wentworth says Mammoth Lakes will see local flooding. But he says other areas downstream will face bigger obstacles, pointing to Inyo County and the Owens Lake bed, which is refilling after drying out decades ago. 

“There's too much water and there's no place to put it. We are all very, very appreciative of this bounty of water that we need coming out of these years of drought.”

He adds, “This is, in my mind, all tied directly to climate change. Six months ago, we were all worried about being incinerated up here from wildfire. We've been doing a lot of work to deal with wildfire mitigation. And now perhaps this is another manifestation of the manic activity that's been predicted of how our changing climate is going to be affecting weather patterns. So now, we're dealing with a madness in the natural world.”