Watch CBSN Live

Another downhill winter season for California's ski resorts?

November and the approach of winter are welcome times at the nation's ski resorts and their surrounding communities.

Those resorts bring in between $4 billion and $6 billion in revenues annually, while factoring in retail sales for skiing equipment, clothing and apparel those estimated overall sales could be closer to $11 billion. Which is why the ski industry is closely monitoring weather conditions for this upcoming season in Far West and particularly in California, which was been suffering through an historic drought.

Speaking in broad terms, the U.S. ski industry is booming. This past August, the National Ski Areas Association said the nation's ski areas recorded 56.5 million skier and snowboarder visits during the 2013 season. That figure is just below the 10-year industry average, and down only 0.7 percent from 2012.

But analysts say the data would have been close to another industry record, if it weren't for the dismal skiing conditions last season in the Golden State.

According to a 2012 study by Patrick Tierney, a professor of recreation, parks and tourism at San Francisco State University, California's two dozen or so major ski resorts had over 7.5 million skier visits during the 2010-2011 season, and contributed $1.3 billion in direct spending.

But SnowSports Industries America (SIA), a trade association that represents the suppliers of snow sports apparel and accessories, says there were only around 3 million skier-rider visits to California last season. In late January, according to SIA research director Kelly Davis, the snowpack in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains was 90 percent below normal, underscoring the effects of climate change.

"It got to the point where it was embarrassing to talk about it as a snow sports problem, [when] it means someone doesn't have enough water to drink," Davis said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), parts of California could get above-average rain and snowfall this winter. But NOAA notes that precipitation still won't be enough to end the years-long drought.

In the meantime, like the rest of California the ski resorts are learning to make do with less water, especially when it comes to essential snow-making operations.

The technology behind snow-making has become more efficient, requiring less water than was used in the past. Resorts in some parts of the U.S. have even adopted the controversial practice of using recycled waste-water to create snow.

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, says snow-making, while not inexpensive, is essential for many resorts' bottom lines.

"It ensures, quite honestly, that in a less than perfect year, that we can still have a great ski season," he said. "Allowing [a resort] to get open on a predictable date... the cost becomes incidental to the benefit."

Tierney, who recently completed an economic study of ski resorts in California's Lake Tahoe region, says some ski areas might end up continuing last year's cost-cutting measure of not opening all their ski runs if the drought continues to affect snow quantity and quality.

Resorts would likely keep blue, or intermediate, and green, or beginner, runs open, he tells CBS Moneywatch. "Maybe some of the [advanced skier] single diamonds. The blues are where most of the skiers are, anyway."

SIA's Davis says that, for the moment, bookings at the California resorts are "fairly healthy," and reflect pent-up consumer demand. "People are stoked," she added. "People want to get up in the mountains."

But Tierney says there's still a lot of concern at the state's resorts, and the rural communities that depend on them, as the wait for the ski season to play out.

"The ski resorts are particularly critically important, economically, because they're mostly in less developed, less urban environments," he added. "And in some cases [they're] by far the biggest employer in the whole county. For a number of counties in California, ski resorts are the biggest single employer in the winter time by a long ways."

View CBS News In