SHASTA LAKE (KTXL) — California’s largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, is located 175 miles north of Sacramento. But what happens there impacts farming throughout the entire Central Valley.
Shasta Lake is capable of holding 4,552,100 acre-feet of water, which is almost five times the capacity of Folsom Lake. When full, Shasta boasts 365 miles of scenic shoreline. But for those visiting the lake in recent months, it is impossible to ignore how that shoreline is shrinking. The water is about 150 feet below the ideal surface level.
“We’re coming out of the three driest years on record,” explained Don Bader, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. “So that’s a huge hit to our storage, as you can see.”
Bader, the man in charge at Shasta Dam, spoke with FOX40 from the top of the dam which was constructed between 1938 and 1945.
“This is the keystone of the Central Valley Project, the federal water project in the state,” Bader said.
Shasta Lake receives about 90 percent of its water from rain and the other 10 percent from snowmelt. When those water supplies are abundant, Shasta provides flood control and round-the-clock electricity through the Shasta Power Plant and serves farming, municipal and environmental needs throughout the Central Valley.
The lack of water in recent years has led to some difficult decisions when it comes to how much water to release out of Shasta Dam into the Sacramento River. By late summer this year, water was flowing through the power plant during peak demand hours only.
A certain amount of water is required to be released for the protection of endangered Chinook salmon.
“If that water gets over 56 degrees, the eggs die,” Bader said. “So that’s our endangered species requirement.”
Releases from Shasta Lake are also relied upon to keep enough fresh water flowing to prevent ocean salt water from entering the Sacramento River.
“So a lot of the water that we see behind us now is helping manage salinity,” explained Jeanine Jones alongside the Sacramento River near Downtown Sacramento. As interstate resources manager for California’s Department of Water Resources, Jones keeps a close eye on Shasta Lake’s key role as a Central Valley Project reservoir.
“Big picture: The Central Valley Project serves quite a bit more agricultural water demand than it does urban,” Jones said. “And in a normal year, or a wet year when they have full supplies, a lot of this water would be irrigating acreage in the Sacramento Valley.”
Through a network of canals, Shasta’s water would reach farmers as far south as Bakersfield. But that’s not happening right now.
“Very little is going to the farmers,” Bader said. “The rest of it going to environmental needs and to the public safety and health.”
Many farmers have simply been unable to plant for lack of water in Shasta and surrounding reservoirs, impacting their livelihoods and the prices consumers pay in the produce aisle.
On the September day when FOX40 visited Shasta, the lake level was at 34 percent of capacity — 58 percent of the historical average. Nearby Trinity Lake, which also supplies water to the Sacramento River, was at 24 percent of capacity and 37 percent of the historical average.
The stark reality of a reservoir at that level comes into focus when exploring areas of Shasta Lake that would normally be underwater. Some of the boat ramps do not even go to the water. The pavement simply meets the dirt. If not for rusty reminders of civilization, images from areas of dry lakebeds could be confused with pictures from a Mars rover.
At the Holiday Harbor Marina, the boat docks are not in their normal location.
“We’ve had to make drastic changes,” marina manager, Kevin Kelley told FOX40. “We’ve had to move our marina all the way out to adjust for the lack of water in our cove. And to relocate it out here is a big task.”
Kelley said the marina is about 2,000 feet out from where it should be.
“You chase the deep water,” Kelley said. “We’ve grown used to this. You know, the lake drops 40, 50, 60, 100 feet every year. And so we have to adapt to the way that the lake changes.”
Kelley wants people to know Shasta Lake is still a great place to visit, even in a time of drought.
“The water is beautiful; the fishing is great,” explained Kelley.
He and others at the marina expressed concern that all the publicity about the lake being a shell of its former self has hurt the boat rental business and tourism. The locals have a different perspective than the one making headlines, and they implored FOX40 to share it.
“The people that have come here all these years I’m sure would love to come back, but they’re probably thinking there’s no water in that lake,” houseboat owner Scott Swendiman said. “But there is a ton of water.”
“This is a great marina,” added a boat owner named Andrew. “Guys work real hard about keeping access, shuttling you back and forth.”
From the view of a boat cruising the lake, one can see, from a recreational standpoint, Shasta is still an impressively large lake with beautiful surroundings and plenty of open water for boating. Even now, it holds more water than any other reservoir in California. And long-time locals share a common belief based on experience. One could call it a “reservoir half-full outlook,” that the lake will rise again.
“I’ve seen it come back, bounce right back, and we’re right back in business,” Kelley said.
“I heard them say one time it was going to take seven years to fill up,” Andrew recalled. “And it filled up in one winter.”
“We saw that in 2017,” Bader said. “We had an extremely wet winter; the wettest on record in fact. So this would fill and would actually be spilling water in no time at all if we get an extremely wet winter. I’m just hoping for a normal winter. That would really help us get back to where we would need to be.”
Governor Newsom recently released a plan called “Water Strategy for a Hotter, Drier California,” calling for new investments for water storage, recycling, de-salting and conservation.
In the meantime, Northern California hopes for a normal winter while adjusting to a new normal.