Extremely low water levels at Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir

KTVU is continuing its week-long series of drought stories with a look at the dire situation in California’s largest reservoir.

Lake Shasta supplies water not only to agriculture in the Central Valley, but also to several regional water systems in the Bay Area. Lake Shasta is located 10 miles from Redding, in Shasta County, and approximately 200 miles north of the Bay Area.

“This year we are 124 feet deep, which is a significant loss of many deposits,” said Don Bader, Northern California area manager for the US Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Shasta Dam and operates the water flowing from the lake.

Regardless of where you look at Lake Shasta, you can see the dramatic “bathtub ring” – bright orange terrain that contrasts with the blue water and green border of the trees. It’s a visual reminder of the severity of California’s drought and not seen on a daily basis in places like the Bay Area.

But for those who work and live in Lake Shasta, it serves as a daily warning.

“For the past 3 years it has been really, really awful to see zero rainfall over the course of months these days,” said Bader.

KTVU spoke to Bader standing on top of the Shasta Dam.

“Why are we so low? Well, we’ve just had the worst three years – consecutive years – for lack of rainfall. The worst three years we’ve had here since this dam was built,” Bader said.

An original tower of the dam construction can now be seen from the top of the Shasta Dam. It only becomes visible when the lake is down about 90 feet, so more than 30 feet of the tower are now visible above the water.

“Everyone starts to feel the pinch when they start realizing they’re not getting the amount of water they normally do,” Bader said.

Unlike other reservoirs that depend on snow runoff, about 90% of the water that flows into Lake Shasta comes from pure precipitation. The ongoing drought means Central Valley farmers have been reduced to just 18% of the water they would get in a normal year.

Less water also means less electricity is generated by the generator’s five huge turbines at the base of the dam.

Additionally, the colder lake water, which is drawn from the lower levels of Lake Shasta, must be retained so that it can be sent down the Sacramento River so that migrating salmon can survive.

What’s happening here at Lake Shasta also has a direct impact on water policy here in the Bay Area, such as irrigation restrictions and drought surcharges on the bill.

“Conservation is a new way of life,” said John Varela, president of the board of directors of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Varela says the district imports about 40% of its water from external sources, one being Lake Shasta.

“We depend on the water we import, which is less than what we have received in the past due to drought,” Varela said.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District receives its allotment of water from Lake Shasta through the Central Valley Project, a system of water distribution channels that runs up and down the Central Valley and supplies water from Lake Shasta to locations up to in Bakersfield.

Drought also has an impact on tourism, which is a key driver of the local economy in Shasta County. Christoper Fermatt, from Pittsburg, Contra Costa County, was on a house boat at Lake Shasta with some friends. He was interviewed well below what would be considered the normal waterline.

“It’s unfathomable to be so deep in the water that I thought it was so high,” Fematt said.

Fematt said coming to the lake and seeing the drought firsthand makes it even more real to him.

“For those who don’t leave the Bay Area, they won’t see it,” Fematt said.

At the Holiday Harbor Marina, on the shores of Lake Shasta north of the I-5 bridge, workers must actually push the docks into the retreating lake to get their business going.

“Normally we are back in our bay. But due to the low level of the lake, we move our docks. It takes about 2 weeks to move them,” said Kevin Kelley, operating director of Holiday Harbor.

But there is a bright side: Lake Shasta can fill up after just one good year of rain.

The lake was last completely full in 2019. The all-time lowest point for Lake Shasta was in 1977, when the lake was 230 feet below its maximum level. The following year, after a very rainy winter, it was almost full.

Despite some adjustments, the lake is still open for recreational activities, which is an important spot for local businesses who fear that drought could scare tourists and damage the local economy.

“We’ve recovered from this before and here on the lake, even though it’s down, there’s tons of water here for recreation, skiing and vacations,” Kelley said.

Kelley, who has spent her entire life on and around Lake Shasta, has this message for water users across the state.

“Save water if you can. If you can save water, help all of California, not just Lake Shasta,” Kelley said.

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