Where did all the water go?

INDECENT EXPOSURE <br>This aerial view of Lake Oroville was taken in the first week of June. State officials blame the low water level on a poor snow pack last winter, only about 40 percent of normal.

This aerial view of Lake Oroville was taken in the first week of June. State officials blame the low water level on a poor snow pack last winter, only about 40 percent of normal.

Photo by Tom Gascoyne

Take a visit to the Lime Saddle Marina, and you’ll see just how low the Oroville reservoir currently is. The boat ramp is exposed to the point that there are temporary parking signs along the last 200 feet before it finally hits the water.

The reservoir is down more than a million acre-feet of water from this time last year—and 2.4 million below its maximum capacity.

We talked with a fisherman who was strapping his aluminum fishing boat to the top of his pickup after a day of fishing.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it this low a couple of times before,” he said, “but that’s always in the fall. Never seen it this low this time of year.”

Heather McBride, a slender, blonde woman who works at the Lime Saddle Marina, told us the lake’s surface level has been dropping about a foot a day. Still, on this day, about a week before July 4, she said she expected the marina to be busy as usual.

“Some people call and ask about the lake level and then say they won’t be coming,” she said. “But once people get out here, they see it’s all right once you’re down on the lake surface. It doesn’t make that much difference.

“Everybody does complain about the long walk down the ramp,” though.

So why is it so low?

“It’s Mother Nature,” said Stephen Kashiwada, deputy director for the Department of Water Resources. “We only got 40 percent of the inflow this year.

Combine that, he said, with the reservoir’s steep sides, and any change in the water level makes a dramatic difference.”

He said this year only 7 to 8 percent of the releases are going to its water contract customers. The rest, he said, is split equally between the Feather River ag contractors and other in-stream uses such as maintaining fishery flows in the Feather and Yuba rivers and to help meet water quality requirements in the Delta, which means bringing in fresh water to mingle with the salt water.

The State Water Project delivers water to 30 contractors along the Feather River, to the North Bay, South Bay, San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast and to Southern California. Its largest contract is with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has rights to an annual supply of 2 million acre-feet. Altogether, contractors have entitlements to some 4.1 million acre-feet. Last year 2 million acre-feet were approved for allocation.

Recent court rulings have limited Southern California’s water resources. The state has had to cut back by 2007 the amount of water it takes from the Colorado River, from the current 5.2 million acre-feet to 4.4 million.

“Basically, as I understand it, Arizona and Nevada weren’t using their full allocations from the Colorado River until fairly recently, when Las Vegas and Phoenix began to grow so much,” said Don Strickland, information officer for DWR.

That means Southern California will continue to request close to its maximum allotment each year, and the lake level will reflect that demand. There is a new water storage facility down south called Diamond Valley Lake. Last year 500,000 acre-feet the Metropolitan Water District took went into that lake.

“This is their backup water supply, what they are going to use if they don’t get water from the north in a given dry year,” says Jim Ragland of the Oroville Recreational Advisory Committee. “That is smart on their part, but they could have picked a better year from our standpoint to fill it.”

Oroville attorney Don Blake says there are a number of reasons for the low level, including the need to move a lot of water south prior to closing the California Aqueduct this summer in anticipation of making long-needed repairs.

Blake said there’s another reason the lake is low.

“In April and May of this year the Cal ISO [Independent Service Operator] gave instructions to DWR to increase its baseline production of power out of Oroville Dam," Blake said. "Our spring runoff was used for that purpose. DWR artificially set a limit on the lake level at 800 feet, and anything that came in from spring runoff that would have increased the lake level above 800 feet was put through the [power generating] turbines and sent down the river."