It has been in the news for months even years, the reservoirs in the west are at historic lows due to drought. I wanted to see them for myself.

Lake Shasta Reservoir, drought October 2021. 26% capacity of 4,552,000 acre feet of water

As I write this in Northern California, we have had one very good rain already this season. Indeed so much rain in Marin county that two of the smallest reservoirs on Mount Tamalpais have already filled. Incredible.

However, most of the reservoirs in the state will need well above average rain and snow accumulation to fill; and Lake Mead the largest in the United States, holding Colorado River water in southern Nevada and Arizona, may never be full again. It has not been full since 1999.

Low reservoir level Lake Mead, Nevada, above Hoover Dam on Colorado River

What follows is basically a photo-journalist’s documentation. I’ve added a few basic facts for each of the reservoirs and at the end there is a link to stock photos and resources to help explain the California water system and Central Valley Project.

Lake Oroville Reservoir, drought October 2021. 25% capacity of 3,537,577 acre-feet acre feet of water

With climate change there really is no telling what the weather will be year to year anymore. The drought can continue or we could have huge floods. But I do hope to show with these series of photos how dependent we are on stored water.  It is my fervent wish that we learn resiliency and use water efficiently for rivers and ecosystems, agriculture, and municipalities.

Dammed water is part of our infrastructure, our green infrastructure on our one planet, one garden earth – let’s take care of her.

SAN LUIS RESERVOIR at 16% capacity of 2,041,000 acre-feet.  What is an acre foot? Equivalent to one foot of water on an acre of land (approx a football field), or 325,851 gallons of water.

San Luis Reservoir, Merced County, California

Of all the major reservoirs in California this is the only one on the western side of the central valley in Merced County and the only one that’s not really it’s own watershed. It is filled with water pumped into it from the California Aqueduct, storing water from the other reservoirs for agricultural use in the summer.

San Luis Reservoir, Merced County, California
San Luis Reservoir, Merced County, California
Dead end boat ramp, San Luis Reservoir, Merced County, California

LAKE MEAD at 36% capacity of 28,255,000 acre-feet. shoreline of 759 miles in Nevada and Arizona.

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Nevada, showing low water from drought

Lake Mead is held by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, its water divided by agreement of the Colorado River Compact, between 7 Western States and Mexico.  With dwindling precipitation and warmer temperatures associated with climate change, and increasing demand for agriculture and burgeoning population of the SouthWest, many predict Lake Mead will never be full again.

Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Nevada, seen from Memorial Bridge showing low water from drought
Low reservoir level Lake Mead, Nevada, above Hoover Dam on Colorado River
Two fishermen and low reservoir level Lake Mead, Nevada, on Colorado River

PINE FLAT RESERVOIR at 19% capacity of 1,000,000 acre⋅ft.

Panorama with dying native Oaks, Pine Flat reservoir, Fresno County, King’s River, California

Pine Flat is on the King’s River and was primarily designed for flood control, local farming and groundwater recharge for agriculture pumping, and the municipalities in Fresno County.

Pine Flat reservoir, 19% capacity; Fresno County, King’s River, California
King’s River flowing below Pine Flat Dam and reservoir in Fresno County, California

Lake Oroville 25% capacity of 3,537,577 acre-feet. Second largest reservoir in state  (after Shasta)

Bidwell Bar Bridge over drought stricken low water Lake Oroville reservoir on Feather River, California

Larger than Hoover Dam and key component of the California Water Project the dam confines the various forks of the Feather River. While the lake reached historic lows this year, heavy rainfall in 2017 damaged the main spillway threatening to undermine and collapse the concrete weir that flows from the dam.

Drought stricken low water Lake Oroville reservoir on Feather River, California
Low water level due to drought, Lake Oroville reservoir on Feather River, California
Lake Oroville reservoir on Feather River, California with dry exposed bathtub ring of dirt from low water and drought
Lake Oroville dam looking west past hydroelectric power plant and Feather River outfall

LAKE SHASTA 24% capacity of 4,552,000 acre⋅ft.

Shasta Dam with low lake reservoir levels and bare Mount Shasta in distance

Lake Shasta is California’s largest reservoir, impounding the Sacramento, Pit, and McCloud Rivers to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta southwest of Sacramento, and delivering more than 40 % of California Water Project water to Southern California.

Lake Shasta Reservoir, drought October 2021. 26% capacity of 4,552,000 acre feet of water
Abandoned boat dock, Lake Shasta Reservoir, drought October 2021. 26% capacity of 4,552,000 acre feet of water
Houseboats stranded at Lake Shasta Reservoir, drought October 2021. 26% capacity of 4,552,000 acre feet of water

Lake Sabrina 10% capacity of 8,376 acre-feet

Low water level due to droughtat dam; Lake Sabrina reservoir on Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest in Sierra Mountains, California

Tiny by comparison, Lake Sabrina at the headwaters of Bishop Creek in Inyo County was created for hydroelectric power and is owned by Southern California Edison.  Trailheads lead hikers deep into the Sierra Mountains.  I only included it here because, well, it is so beautiful, and just as empty at the big reservoirs.

Dry Boat launch ramp, “Private Dock -Keep Off” sign at Lake Sabrina reservoir on Bishop Creek
Fishermen and reflections; Lake Sabrina reservoir, low water level due to drought on Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest

Gallery of Photos Dry Reservoirs

Learn more about the water systems in California and the West:

California Central Valley Project

California Department of Water

Colorado River Compact

Lake Mead first ever official declared water shortage by Bureau of Reclamation (August 2021) triggers 18% cutback of water delivery to Arizona.

State of Water by Obi Kaufmann

The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax

 

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