120 houseboats pulled off Lake Oroville as reservoir is expected to reach lowest level ever

Northern California’s Lake Oroville is becoming the poster child of drought in the Golden State.

The state’s second-largest reservoir in Butte County was at 37% of capacity as of Monday. Photos taken over the Memorial Day weekend show dozens of houseboats sitting on cinder blocks because there wasn’t enough water to hold them.

Blackened trees lined the reservoir’s steep, parched banks.

Each year Lake Oroville helps water a quarter of the nation’s crops, sustains endangered salmon beneath its massive earthen dam and anchors the tourism economy of a Northern California county that must rebuild seemingly every year after unrelenting wildfires.

Water lines are visible on the banks of Lake Oroville on June 01, 2021 in Oroville, California. As the extreme drought takes hold in California, water levels at reservoirs are falling fast. Lake Oroville is currently at 38 percent of capacity. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 16 percent of California is in exceptional drought, the most severe level of dryness. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But the mighty lake — a linchpin in a system of aqueducts and reservoirs in the arid U.S. West — is shrinking with surprising speed amid a severe drought, with state officials predicting it will reach a record low later this summer.

Two of the four boat ramps — Lime Saddle and Loafer Point — that operate within the state recreation area closed on June 3, and after this weekend Spillway will likely also be inaccessible with only the Bidwell Canyon ramp still in use. 

Aaron Wright, public safety chief for California State Park’s Northern Butte’s District, expects that all ramps could be closed for the first time ever in August. 

The lake has the capacity to accommodate up to 1,200 houseboats. Over the weekend, the marinas pulled 80 houseboats from Bidwell Canyon Marina and 50 from Lime Saddle Marina, according to Wright.

In the last 2012-2016 drought, boats were removed from the lake, but not as many as were pulled off this year, Wright said. 

“We’re at a point where we can’t remove any more boats,” he noted. “We are stuck with what we have. Just based on where the water is, we’ve reached the point where we can’t safely pull houseboats off the lake unless there’s a dire emergency. It can be done but it would be a tremendous amount of work.”

The main boats will be utilized as long as the Bidwell Canyon Marina can safely get people on and off, and Wright hopes this will be possible at least into late summer. The only boat access to the lake would be an old dirt road that was built during the dam’s construction in the late 1960s.

“I’ve worked in the area since 2006,” he said. “I was superintendent in the last drought. This is going to be worse than it was last time but with that said I think we fared OK. I think we’ll get through it. I think it’s just going to be inconvenient. I feel for the marinas and the recreation users.”

A concrete structure is visible in a section of Lake Oroville that is usually underwater on June 01, 2021 in Oroville, California. As the extreme drought takes hold in California, water levels at reservoirs are falling fast. Lake Oroville is currently at 38 percent of capacity. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 16 percent of California is in exceptional drought, the most severe level of dryness. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jared Rael, assistant general manager for the Bidwell Canyon Marina, said the low-water situation has resulted in a huge financial loss and Oroville Lake Marinas is trying to be fair to boat owners by reducing mooring to those who were pulled out of the marina system. He also had to build cribbing to set the boats on, purchasing materials and paying for labor. 

“What has changed in recent months is that normally we have a more significant amount of rain, which we had hoped to receive in March, but unfortunately did not,” Rael said. “The last couple years we also had seen the water start dropping right after 4th of July sometimes. This would have given the customers at least a little bit of a summer to enjoy on the lake. All in all, an unfortunate situation, but we are trying to adapt and overcome to navigate the situation as best we can on short notice of a low water condition year.”

The lake’s water level stood at 706.81 feet as of Monday. It dipped down to 695 feet in January, its second-lowest point in recorded history. This isn’t surprising as winter 2020-21 was marked by weak storms and has gone down in the record books as the third-driest. The Sierra Nevada snowpack that helps feed the reservoir was at 0% of average as of Monday, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

“Currently, the snowpack in the Feather River watershed, whose snowmelt normally replenishes the reservoir during California’s summers, is currently at only five percent of average, so lower lake levels later this summer are anticipated,” said Eric See, environmental program manager for the department. 

Water lines are visible on the banks of Lake Oroville on June 01, 2021 in Oroville, California. As the extreme drought takes hold in California, water levels at reservoirs are falling fast. Lake Oroville is currently at 38 percent of capacity. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 16 percent of California is in exceptional drought, the most severe level of dryness. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The lake hit its lowest point ever in 1977 during a period of extreme drought, reaching 640 feet. In the most recent 2012-2016 drought, the lake dropped to as low as 660 feet in 2015. 

Projections from the Department of Water Resources indicate the lake is likely to drop below its lowest-ever point in late summer or early fall.

If Lake Oroville falls below 640 feet state officials would shut down a major power plant for only the second time ever because of low water levels, straining the electrical grid during the hottest part of the summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Read More

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on print
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on print
Share on email