Shallow reservoirs indicate deep drought

November 7, 2008 7:13:42 PM PST
After two years of dry weather, some California reservoirs are approaching record low levels. The situation is so bad, even a normal rain year will not pull some of Northern California's key reservoirs out of their alarming state, which means rationing could become a way of life for many Bay Area water users for a very long time.

How low will they go? Despite some early rain, many Northern California reservoirs remain in dire condition.

"Bleak, it looks very bleak," said Jeremy Bernau, chairman of the Folsom Economic Development Corporation which depends on Folsom Lake for its very survival.

The lake now sits at just 25 percent of capacity, its lowest level since the early 1990s.

"This is very scary when it comes to the ability for California to meet its future needs," said Bernau. "Water is a precious resource that we need to make sure is available for our healthy economy."

The lake is so low, hundreds of boats at the marina at Brown's Ravine had to be pulled out of the water, just days before the 4th of July holiday. The boat ramps were closed at the height of the summer season and now the floating marina slips sit on the ground, grass growing up between them.

"It wasn't much of a summer. We had a little bit of stuff early in the year -- May. But June came around and the water started going down and then recreation starts dropping off from there," said Tim Guardino, supervising ranger for Folsom State Park.

The shallow waters are a sign of just how deep the drought is in Northern California. Besides Folsom, Lake Shasta is just at 28 percent of its capacity. Both are key components of the Central Valley Project which provides water for one million Californians, including many in the Contra Costa and Santa Clara Valley water districts and East Bay MUD.

The San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos is currently just 12 percent of capacity. San Luis is a storage facility for the Santa Clara Water District. Because it is so low, the district has had to mix water from San Luis with water from another reservoir and then treat it to eliminate contamination from algae blooms.

Things are not much better at Lake Camanche. It is currently about 30 percent full and a part of the East Bay MUD system that has already imposed mandatory rationing on its customers.

"If we don't get the rains, we're history," said Modesto's Don Payne who has been fishing at Camanche for 30 years.

Lake Camanche is a flood control facility for East Bay MUD, an overflow for the larger supply reservoir, Pardee. Camanche is kept low to keep Pardee 80 percent full.

"We manage the less water that we have or the shortage of supply by having a greater impact on the flood control reservoir," said Charles Hardy with East Bay MUD.

"I think there's good reason for concern with the reservoirs so low," said Elissa Lynn, a meteorologist with the California Department of Water Resources." Anytime they start to get in this range of historic value, where you're looking at historic values, just like we were in the mid-70s and in the late 80s, early 90s, that's when the hard decisions have to be made."

Even in these barren conditions, some find opportunity. One family from Clayton ventured into a section of Folsom Lake that is normally invisible.

"Normally you can't see any of this because it's covered by water, but as you can see right now, it's pretty exposed," said Folsom visitor Diane Boyd.

They came to see the crumbling foundations at the outskirts of Old Mormon Island, a settlement from the Gold Rush era. Nine-year-old Conner Clayton understands that just being able to see this bit of California history is historic. "I think we should call this Folsom Pond, not Folsom Lake, because it's too low. But if it fills up, it could be Folsom Lake again."

Conner's not the only hoping for a wet winter.


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