Oroville, Calif. — Each year Lake Oroville helps water a quarter of the nation’s crops, sustains the endangered salmon beneath its massive earthen dam and anchors the northern California county’s tourism economy that is known to be unrelenting wilderness each year. Must be rebuilt after the fire.
But now the mighty lake – a linchpin in a system of aqueducts and reservoirs in the arid US West that makes California possible – is shrinking at an astonishing pace amid a severe drought, with state officials predicting it will hit later this summer. record will be reduced.
While drought is common in California, this year is much hotter and drier than others, with water evaporating more rapidly from reservoirs and the rare Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds them. According to Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis, the state’s more than 1,500 reservoirs are 50% less than at this time of year.
Over Memorial Day weekend, dozens of houseboats sat on cinderblocks on Lake Oroville because there was not enough water to hold them. Black trees line the steep, dry banks of the reservoir.
At nearby Folsom Lake, the usually bustling boats rest on dry land, their buoys warning the phantom boats to slow down. The campers occupied the dusty river banks north of Lake Shasta.
But the effects of dwindling reservoirs go well beyond luxury yachts and weekend anglers. Salmon require cold water from the bottom of the reservoirs to lay eggs. San Francisco Bay requires fresh water from reservoirs to keep out saltwater that harms freshwater fish. Farmers need water to irrigate their crops. Businesses need reservoirs so that people can play and spend money in them.
And everyone needs water to run the hydroelectric power plants that supply most of the state’s energy.
If Lake Oroville drops below 640 feet (195 m) – which could happen by the end of August – state officials will shut down a major power plant for a second time due to low water levels, causing power demand to peak. Will happen. Hottest part of summer.
In Northern California’s Butte County, low water prompts another emotion: fear. The county suffered the deadliest US wildfires in a century in 2018 when 85 people died. Last year, 16 more people died in forest fires.
While walking along the Bidwell Canyon Trail last week, 63-year-old Lisa Larson had a nice view of the lake. Instead, he saw dry grass and trees.
“It makes me feel like our planet is really drying up,” she said. “It makes me feel a little tearful because the drier it gets, the more on fire it’s going to get.”
Drought is a part of life in California, where the Mediterranean-style climate means that summers are always dry and winters are not always wet. The state’s reservoirs act as a savings account, storing water in wet years to help the state survive during droughts.
Last year was the third driest year on record in terms of rainfall. Temperatures in much of California rose to the triple mark earlier than expected over Memorial Day weekend. State officials were surprised earlier this year when the nearly 500,000 acre-feet (61,674 ha m) of water they were hoping to flow into the reservoir never showed up. One acre-feet of water is enough to supply up to two houses in a year.
“In the last drought, it took three years to deplete (reservoirs) because they are in the second year of this drought,” Lund said.
The lake’s record low is 646 feet (197 m), but the Department of Water Resources estimates it will drop sometime in August or September. If that happens, the state will first have to close the boat ramp because of the low water level, according to Aaron Wright, chief of public safety for the North Butts District of California State Parks. The only boat access to the lake will be an old dirt road built during the construction of the dam in the late 1960s.
“We have a reservoir there which is not usable. And now what?” said Eric Smith, an Auroville City Council member and president of its Chamber of Commerce.
Water levels in Lake Mendocino, a reservoir along the Russian River in northern California, are so low that state officials last week reduced the amount of water for 930 farmers, businesses and other junior water-rights holders.
“Unless we immediately reduce the diversion, there is a real danger of Lake Mendocino being empty by the end of this year,” said Eric Eckdahl, deputy director of the state water board’s water rights department.
Low water levels throughout California will severely limit how much electricity the state can generate from hydroelectric power plants. When Lake Oroville fills up, the Edward Hyatt Power Plant and others nearby can generate up to 900 megawatts of electricity, according to Behzad Soltanzadeh, head of utility operations for the Department of Water Resources. One megawatt is enough to power between 800 and 1,000 homes.
That has led some local officials to worry about power cuts, especially after the state ran out of energy during an extreme heat wave last summer that prompted California’s first rotational blackout in 20 years. But energy officials say they are better prepared this summer, having secured an additional 3,500 megawatts of capacity ahead of the scorching summer months.
Low levels are challenging for tourism executives. Bruce Spangler, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Explore Butte County, grew up in Oroville and has a passion for fishing with his grandfather and learning to drive and operate a boat before driving a car. But this summer, his organization will have to be careful about how it markets the lake while still managing visitors’ expectations, he said.
“We have to make sure we don’t promise something that can’t happen,” he said.
The lower level of the lake hasn’t deterred tourists from visiting yet. With the lifting of coronavirus restrictions across the state, Wright – the official at Northern California’s state parks – said attendance at most parks in his area is double what it is normally this time of year.
“People are trying to rebuild and use facilities (because) they know they will lose them here in a few months,” he said.
Associated Press writer Brian Meley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.