CHICO, Calif. - Lake levels are well below average as we near the end of January. This can have adverse effects on those using the lakes, as well as the habitat. The good news is, we still have half of our wettest season to look forward to which could lead to improvement.
It's mid-January and the amount of rain seen so far is concerning. We're 25-50% of average this time of year in Northern California. The rest of California is looking even worse. In fact, there are some locations near Los Angeles that are 14 to 15% of average for the rainfall.
The snowpack is not looking much better. We're about 50% of average for snow in our region in the Sierra-Cascades. As we go closer to Tahoe, its about 45% of average. The Southern Sierra is about 23% of where the snowpack should be.
Snowpack and rainfall figures are important because they play a role in filling up the lakes.
The snowpack melts in the spring, filling up lakes. Rainfall also helps add to the lake levels throughout the rainy season.
Since they're both below average, the lakes aren't looking too good, either. Lake Oroville is about 35% full, which is 55% of average. That's about half of where it should be this time of year. A whole 206 feet from the top.
As for Shasta Lake, it's looking a little better but still not great. About 40% full but only 70% of average. That's short 30% of where it should be this time of year at Shasta Lake.
What do low lake levels mean?
Farmers aren't at a big risk right now as their water usage is low in the winter.
Less water in area rivers can affect habitat through less wetland flooding, less groundwater recharge and higher mortality on young fish, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Other hazards can also pop up when lake levels are low.
"As the water drops, underwater hazards pop up, and you can kind of see that behind me. As you can see some of those islands are starting to pop up behind me. Those are usually underwater and if you can see what we call the wash mark, which is right underneath the high watermark underneath the bridge there, that's a high flow year. That's 901' elevation of water level and you can see we are much below that," said Capt. Travis Gee, California State Parks Superintendent 2.
For now, State Water Project operators have been decreasing outflows from Lake Oroville to conserve storage.
The California Department of Water Resources says we are only halfway through our wettest months and in previous years, atmospheric river events helped us get back on track in February and March.
Here is a full statement from the California Department of Water Resources concerning lake levels:
California’s climate experiences great variability between wet and dry years. This year has been off to a dry start and the current lack of precipitation in California is reflected by low water elevations in many State Water Project reservoirs, including Lake Oroville which is currently at 695.40 feet elevation, 55 percent of average. A full reservoir will reach nearly 900 feet elevation.
State Water Project operators have been decreasing outflows from Lake Oroville to conserve storage. The Low Flow Channel of the Feather River, near the Feather River Fish Hatchery and through Oroville, is kept at 800 cubic feet per second to maintain safe levels for fish such as salmon and steelhead.
Farmers usually reduce their water usage during the winter. Rice farmers in the Valley have already obtained much of their water used for rice stubble decomposition for this season.
Low lake levels at Lake Oroville have put several boat launch ramps out of the water with only Bidwell Canyon’s ramps and a temporary ramp at the Spillway available for use.
Less water in area rivers can affect habitat through less wetland flooding, less groundwater recharge, higher mortality on young fish and other ecological impacts.
Water quality is maintained by local water districts which supply water to households, businesses, and farms.
Currently, we are only half-way through the three wettest months in California. In fact, in past years, atmospheric river storms in February and March have brought State Water Project reservoirs up to average levels, including Lake Oroville.
It is important to remain aware of California’s variable climate and make water conservation a daily way of life. When it comes to water conservation no action is to small and it is important for Californians to consider every drop of water that they use.
Over the past 2 decades, DWR has utilized below-average lake levels to extend boat ramps down into the Lake Oroville fluctuation zone, to provide paved boat launching even during very low lake level periods. Although the rainy season of this current water year is still underway and a lot can change between now and April, if this water year turns out to be a below-average year then DWR will take advantage of the low lake levels and continue with the construction of the Loafer Point Boat Ramp deeper into the fluctuation zone during the fall/winter of 2021-22.