OROVILLE, Calif .– Each year Lake Oroville helps water a quarter of the country’s crops, support endangered salmon under its massive earthen dam, and anchor the tourism economy of a northern county. California which apparently has to rebuild itself every year after incessant forest fires.
But now the mighty lake – a pivot in a system of aqueducts and reservoirs in the arid western United States that makes California possible – is shrinking at surprising speed amid severe drought, officials at the state predicting it will hit an all-time high later this summer.
While droughts are common in California, this year’s droughts are much hotter and drier than others, evaporating water faster from reservoirs and the sparse snowpack of the Sierra Nevada that feeds them. The state’s more than 1,500 reservoirs are 50% lower than they should be this time of year, according to Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis.
Over Memorial Day weekend, dozens of houseboats sat on cinder blocks at Lake Oroville because there was not enough water to contain them. Blackened trees lined the steep, parched banks of the reservoir.
In nearby Lake Folsom, normally bustling boat docks rested on dry land, their buoys warning ghost boats to slow down. Campers occupied the dusty shores further north of Lake Shasta.
But the impacts of dwindling tanks go beyond luxury yachts and weekend fishermen. Salmon need cold water from the bottom of tanks to spawn. The San Francisco Bay needs freshwater from reservoirs to prevent saltwater from harming freshwater fish. Farmers need water to irrigate their crops. Businesses need full tanks for people to come and play and spend money on.
And everyone needs water to run the hydroelectric plants that supply a lot of the state’s energy.
If Lake Oroville falls below 640 feet (195 meters) – which it could do by the end of August – state officials would shut down a large power plant for the second time only due to low levels of water. water, straining the electricity grid during peak demand in the hottest part of the summer.
In Butte County, northern California, low water causes another emotion: fear. The county suffered the deadliest wildfire in the United States in a century in 2018, with the deaths of 85 people. Last year 16 more people died in a forest fire.
While walking along the Bidwell Canyon Trail last week, Lisa Larson, 63, was supposed to have a good view of the lake. Instead, she saw withered grass and trees.
“It gives me the impression that our planet is literally drying up,” she said. “It disturbs me a bit because the drier it is, the more fires we will have.”
Droughts are a part of life in California, where a Mediterranean-style climate means summers are always dry and winters aren’t always wet. State reservoirs serve as a savings account, storing water during wet years to help the state survive in dry years.
Last year was the third driest year on record in terms of precipitation. Temperatures hit triple digits across much of California over Memorial Day weekend, earlier than expected. State officials were surprised earlier this year when about 500,000 acre-feet (61,674 hectare-meters) of water they expected to pour into reservoirs never showed up. One acre-foot is sufficient to supply up to two households for a year.
“In the previous drought, it took (reservoirs) three years to reach this low as they are in the second year of this drought,” Lund said.
The lake’s lowest record is 646 feet (197 meters), but the Water Resources Department predicts it will drop below in August or September. If that happens, the state will have to close boat launches for the first time due to low water levels, according to Aaron Wright, public safety chief of the Northern Buttes District State Parks. in California. The only boat access to the lake would be an old dirt road that was built during the construction of the dam in the late 1960s.
“We have a tank up there that won’t be usable. And now what? said Eric Smith, member of Oroville city council and president of its chamber of commerce.
The water level is so low at Lake Mendocino – a reservoir along the Russian River in northern California – that state officials last week reduced the amount of water going to 930 farmers, businesses and other junior water rights holders.
“Unless we immediately reduce diversions, there is a real risk that Lake Mendocino will empty by the end of this year,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the Water Rights Division of the National Water Office.
Low water levels across California will severely limit the amount of electricity the state can generate from hydroelectric plants. When Lake Oroville is full, the Edward Hyatt power station and others nearby can generate up to 900 megawatts of electricity, according to Behzad Soltanzadeh, utility operations manager for the Water Resources Department. One megawatt is enough to power between 800 and 1,000 homes.
This is causing some local officials to worry about power outages, especially after the state ran out of power last summer in an extreme heat wave that caused the first spinning blackouts in the city. California 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 a challenge for tourism officials. Bruce Spangler, Chairman of the Board of Explore Butte County, grew up in Oroville and has fond memories of fishing with his grandfather and learning to launch and ride. a boat before you can drive a car. But this summer, his organization needs to be careful about how it markets the lake while managing visitor expectations, he said.
“We have to be sure not to promise something that cannot be,” he said.
The low level of the lakes has not yet prevented tourists from coming. With the coronavirus restrictions lifted across the state, Wright – the head of state parks for Northern California – has said attendance at most parks in his area is double what it is. is normally at this time of year.
“People are trying to recreate and use the facilities even more (because they know they’re going to lose them here in a few months,” he said.
Associated Press writer Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.