Drought means lower lake levels, more crowded shores

clambert@thetribunenews.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Most weekends when Atascadero resident Jeremy Gearhart drives to a local lake to fish for bass, he can’t help but notice the impacts from one of the worst droughts in state history.

Due to lower water levels at Nacimiento Lake — the lake is 21 percent full — Gearhart has to watch for hazards such as rocks and stumps while maneuvering his bass boat around the back of the lake.

“The lake has really shrunk up in size compared to what it was before,” said Gearhart, 30, who won a Best Bass tournament at the lake in January with Atascadero resident Jason Martin.

At the same time, local lakes — especially those with more water, such as Lopez Lake — are feeling more crowded to Gearhart, as fishermen from the Central Valley, King City and Salinas flock to San Luis Obispo County because of low water levels at their local fishing spots.

Though some lakes in San Luis Obispo and southern Monterey counties have been hard hit, residents can still find places to camp, fish, hike and launch a boat, with a few exceptions.

At Lake San Antonio, trees once covered by water now sit exposed amid the cracked, dry lake bed. The boat launch ramps no longer reach the lake.

At other local lakes, visitors who go to fish or hike will see unfamiliar sights: closed swim areas, exposed rocks, mud flats and stranded boat docks.

The surrounding hills, which usually start to brighten with shades of green in late winter, remain mostly brown and dry.

Still, two upcoming triathlons are expected to go ahead as planned, including Wildflower, a hugely popular race that will be held at Lake San Antonio despite extremely low lake levels there.

And while fewer people have visited San Antonio over the past few months, camping and day use at several other lakes has increased, likely thanks to warmer-than-normal temperatures throughout the winter.

Lopez Lake use up

At Lopez Lake in rural Arroyo Grande, fees for camping and day use brought in more money this past January than January 2013.

Lopez Lake is 56 percent full, according to San Luis Obispo County Water Resources. Another county reservoir, Santa Margarita Lake, is at 38.6 percent of capacity.

“I think we are getting the benefit of the difficulty that other lakes have because we do still have plenty of fishable water and have full water sports available at Lopez,” said Curtis Black, deputy director of San Luis Obispo County Parks. “Even though it’s a bit colder, there are still plenty of folks getting a wetsuit on and playing in the water.”

Several campgrounds are closed at Lopez — the recreation area has more than 350 campsites — but that’s because this time of year is slower, not because of the drought, said county Parks Superintendent Larry Iaquinto.

Visitors to Lopez Lake spent $124,650 on camping and day use fees in January, compared to $107,845 in January 2013 — a 15.6 percent increase, Black said.

Both Lopez Lake and Santa Margarita Lake have plenty of fish, Black said, but only Lopez Lake is stocked with trout. The most recent trout plant was in December, and three more are planned before summer.

The March Triathlon Series, a collegiate triathlon at Lopez Lake hosted by the Cal Poly Triathlon Team, is still scheduled for March 23.

“It’s definitely noticeable that it’s low, but the swim will be fine,” said Cal Poly business accounting major Connor Choiniere, a member of the triathlon team and this year’s race director.

Santa Margarita suffers

While camping and day use fees have increased at Lopez Lake, both have fallen at Santa Margarita Lake, where visitors can still hike, fish, and camp even though the reservoir is only about one-third full.

Fees brought in $12,816 in January at Santa Margarita Lake, compared to about $30,000 in January 2013.

It’s quieter than Lopez, too, because swimming is not allowed. (The lake supplies drinking water to the city of San Luis Obispo.) The lake has about 60 campsites, which are open despite lower water levels.

The White Oak launch ramp is closed because the water level is too low to launch from that area, Iaquinto said. The main launch ramp is still open but has been reduced to one lane, he added.

He said sales of annual passes to the lake are down, but the number of passes sold was not available.

“We’re trying to get the word out there that our lakes are still open and operating,” Iaquinto said.

Visitors to San Antonio plummet

Lake San Antonio is lower than it’s ever been, but a power-plant issue at nearby Nacimiento Lake is to blame for the current water levels.

The lake, which holds 335,000 acre-feet of water, is only 5 percent full, with the water elevation at 655.8 feet — the lowest it’s been since the reservoir was completed in 1966.

Robert Johnson, assistant general manager for Monterey County Water Resources Agency, said more water than usual was released from Lake San Antonio last summer while some emergency repair work was done at the power station below the Nacimiento Lake dam.

Normally, more water is released from Nacimiento, which fills up three times as fast as San Antonio.

“The fact that no water is coming in doesn’t help, but it’s not at 5 percent because of the drought,” Johnson said.

Since October, the number of visitors has dropped since camping and day-use areas on the north shore have been closed because of low water levels and potential danger from submerged or partially submerged hazards. Equestrian trails remain open.

From November 2012 to January 2013, 6,256 people camped or used the north shore facilities, said Casey Nielsen, managing park ranger for Monterey County Parks.

From November 2013 to January 2014, that side of the lake saw 255 visitors.

The south shore is open, but launch ramps for power boats no longer reach the water. There are some access points for kayaks, canoes and other hand-launched boats, Nielsen said.

The lake’s south shore drew 1,985 people between November 2013 to January 2014, compared to 3,960 during the same time period last year.

“We’ve seen some reduced usage, but the benefit of having some nice sunny days has brought quite a few people out,” he added.

Meanwhile, organizers said last week that Wildflower — described by one reviewer as the Rose Bowl of triathlons — is still scheduled for the first weekend in May at Lake San Antonio.

The event draws as many as 6,800 participants and 20,000 friends, family and volunteers — a crowd that would give the park a much needed boost in camping and day-use fees.

The swim portion of the triathlon — 1.2 miles for the long course — normally held at the Lynch launch ramp area, might be moved to Harris Creek, but that decision won’t be made until April, said Terry Davis, chief executive officer and founder of Tri-California Events, Inc.

“The lake is still about 2.5 miles long from the dam to Harris Creek, so even today we could have the swim for the long course,” he said.

Tri-California Events and Monterey County Parks announced Feb. 7 that a practice swim course has been set up near Harris Creek on the south end of the lake.

Lake Nacimiento benefits

It’s also possible that some regular users of Lake San Antonio might be heading to Nacimiento Lake instead.

According to Monterey County Parks, more people visited Nacimiento in November, December and January than during the same time period the previous year.

From November through January, 1,728 people camped at the lake; compared to 960 people for the same period a year ago.

A recent bass tournament held there was packed, with 45 boats.

“In August, we started seeing people going to Nacimiento Lake who normally go to San Antonio, because of low water and lack of launch facilities” at the latter lake, Nielsen said.

Mark Sandoval, general manager of Monterey Lakes Recreation Co., which operates facilities at both lakes, is brainstorming ways to bring people to the area, such as offering visitors lodging at Lake San Antonio with a boat slip at Nacimiento.

The low lake levels might prompt him to hire fewer seasonal staff members this year, Sandoval said.

“At San Antonio, we’re definitely getting calls about the water levels,” he said. “There are a lot of weather watchers.”

PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey’s long-term forecast for February calls for below average rainfall for the Central Coast, but March should feature slightly above-normal precipitation and temperatures.

April should be colder than average and wetter than normal, he said in a recent weather forecast.

However, Lindsey noted in a Tribune column last September that it’s difficult to accurately predict how much water we need to fill the county’s lakes and reservoirs.

“They fill at different rates depending on the size of the watershed that drains into them and the different amounts of precipitation that fall in our notoriously complex San Luis Obispo County microclimates,” he wrote.

For his part, Gearhart, the fisherman, is waiting to see what Mother Nature does before he’ll consider buying an annual pass to Santa Margarita Lake. If the lake level drops too low, he worries, the boat launch ramps might be closed.

“As the drought continues, it’s going to end up crowding the lakes even more from out-of-the-area guys because they’re in the same kind of boat we’re in,” he said.

Quagga mussel concerns

Boaters visiting any local lake must have their vessels inspected to ensure they don’t contain invasive quagga mussels.

The small, nonnative shellfish breed quickly and have the ability to clog boats and water pipes, infest hydropower infrastructure, adhere to boats and pilings, and damage fisheries.

Once introduced into a waterway, there is no way to fully eradicate them, according to San Luis Obispo County Public Works.

None have been found in San Luis Obispo County, or in Lake San Antonio in southern Monterey County. But local officials are worried because the mussel appears to have spread to Lake Piru in Ventura County.

All boats, including power boats, kayaks and canoes, must be clean, drained and dry for inspection.

Those without a valid screening permit are subject to a $2,000 fine.

For more information, go to www.slocountywater.org/site/Frequent%20Downloads/Quagga%20Mussels.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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