Drone photos reveal the shocking truth of California’s parched landscape

As the West descends deeper into drought, climate and water experts are growing increasingly alarmed by California’s severely shriveling reservoirs.

Photos of Lake Orville, Lake Folsom, Trinity Lake and Shasta, taken by Times photographer Brian van der Brug using a drone, unveil the harsh reality of the Golden State’s not-so-golden drought.

On Monday, Shasta Lake — the largest reservoir in the state — held a scant 1.57 million acre-feet of water, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, or about 35% of its capacity. Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, said “everybody should be concerned” by what they’re seeing.

“The reservoir levels we’re looking at are near-record low, with all the prospects that they will actually be record low by the end of the summer,” he said. “The mountains are dried out. The sponge is completely dry.”

Boats are moored in a shrinking arm of Lake Oroville, which stands at 33% full and 40% of historical average.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A truck crosses the Enterprise Bridge at Lake Oroville.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A view over a home burned in the North Complex Fire in 2020, towards the Enterprise area boat ramp on Lake Oroville.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A boat dock is left high and dry on the shoreline at Lake Oroville.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Many scientists studying California’s drought point to 1976-77 as a “worst-case scenario” benchmark. That drought brought Lake Oroville to its all-time record low of 646 feet above sea level.

On Monday, the lake sat just over 661 feet above sea level, or 28% of its total capacity, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Already, farmers in the state have faced such dry conditions that many have begun fallowing fields, pulling out vines and trees, and leaving empty land that once flourished.

The exposed lake bed at drought-stricken Folsom Lake.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A man carries his kayak hundreds of feet up a ramp from the lakeshore as water levels recede at Folsom Lake.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Boat slips lay stranded on dry land as water levels recede.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The most recent rain year, which ended in June, was the seventh-riest in Los Angeles’ 144 years of records, according to Golden Gate Weather Services, and the third-driest on record in the Northern Sierra region.

But officials in March warned that already low snowpack levels were dwindling, predicting a critically dry year for the state. By June, the Department of Water Resources found that the statewide snowpack was at a grim 0.1 of an inch, or 0% of normal.

This ridgeline is normally under water at Trinity Lake, which stands 47% full, below its average for the time of year.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A man walks down a dry ramp, hundreds of feet from the former shoreline marina at Trinity Lake.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Trinity Lake is among the bodies of water in California affected by the drought.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A houseboat is out of the water for repairs at Trinity Lake.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Boats tied up at a Lake Shasta marina, hundreds of feet below where they are usually moored.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A railroad bridge frames an old roadway and bridge, revealed by receding water levels.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“Bathtub ring” is stark evidence of the falling water level at Lake Shasta.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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