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Remote Northern California reservoir stuck in drought despite winter's water wealth

Northern California reservoir stuck in drought despite winter's water wealth
Northern California reservoir stuck in drought despite winter's water wealth 05:23

WEAVERVILLE -- There has been a lot of attention on the parts of California that saw a huge winter. One example is the Tulare Lake basin, which has flooded again as the southern Sierra snowpack melts.

Just about all of the state's reservoirs are now near full. Shasta and Oroville, the two largest, are both well above their historical averages.

Trinity Lake, however, is one Northern California reservoir where all the rain and snow hasn't quite added up. 

ALSO READ: Shasta Lake nearly filled to the brim following remarkable winter turnaround

Trinity is at just 39 percent capacity -- just half its historical average. It's a reservoir that works a bit differently from others but the people living there think they missed out on this winter and they're not happy about it.

Trinity Lake Water Level
Trinity Alps Marina owner Darryl Marlin surveys the water level at Trinity Lake reservoir. KPIX

"I've been up here for 22 years," said Trinity Alps Marina owner Darryl Marlin. "I've seen it go up and down. We've had droughts before. This lake should be about three-quarters full right now."

Marlin was giving a tour of a location where the drought hasn't really ended.

"It's hurting the recreation part of this lake. The people that want to come up to the little towns of Lewiston, Weaverville," he explained. "It's hurting everybody up here." 

ALSO READ: Reborn from record winter, Tulare Lake could see explosive growth from snowmelt

In this region, a trip to the dock still means making a bit of a trek across a landscape that looks a lot like the dry California of the past several years.

"As you can see, you have to come all the way down this hill to get to that ramp down there to get to your boats," Marlin said, pointing to a stretch of dry ground from the docks to the tree line.

On the banks of the Trinity, it's easy to feel like this is the lake our wet winter left behind. About an hour away, ecstatic business owners on Shasta Lake are dropping boats into a full reservoir.

"I get calls every day," Marlin said. "'Is the water coming up? What are they doing with the water? Shasta is full. Everybody else is full. What's going on?'"

ALSO READ: Rising spring temperatures trigger Sierra snowmelt flood fears; 'We know the heat's coming'

"Two-part answer," said Donald Bader, area manager with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "First part is, we just came out of the worst three years of drought on record in the Trinity Basin but Trinity is a large reservoir -- the third largest in the state -- and it has an extremely small basin."

Bader points out that Trinity started very low and it doesn't fill as easily as Shasta. So, while the lake did see some intense rainfall, the bureau says it wasn't enough to fuel an above-average rebound.

"One hundred twenty percent is above normal," Bader said of Trinity's winter. "But it's not the 200 to 300 percent we saw across the state to fill basically every other reservoir besides Trinity."

Trinity is fed predominantly by snowpack and that represents some good news for the lake.

"There is plenty of snowpack. The problem is, look at the lake," Marlins said, looking at the mountains. 

People here say an opportunity was missed by allowing too much water to flow out of the lake during the winter and spring storms.

"This year we did not release extra water, we just released some of that volume earlier than normally we do," Bader explained. "So we moved some of that volume from the summer to winter months so people saw more volume in February and March than they normally do but that'll be shaved back this summer so the overall volume will be the same."

Bader said the release flows are going exactly as scheduled and the seasonal shift is part of a multi-year plan to restore fish habitat below Trinity Dam. "It's a continual -- it's a 'you learn as you' go here," he said.

Changes might be needed if the lake is going to fully recover. The bureau is currently re-evaluating the operational rules for Trinity, and, after a lot of feedback, this is something they're looking at:

"One of those determinations might be, when we have really low lake levels, let's readjust the volumes perhaps," Bader said. "Just like people wanted to see this year. Let's save some more of that volume to build the reservoir back. Trinity is a really difficult reservoir to build back in one year, as we saw this year. So we're looking at things like that, longer term."

"If we'd be halfway up from where we are right now, I don't think anybody would be bitching so bad," Marlin said.

People living around Trinity might be among the few in California who are desperate for another big winter.

"I'm hoping we get good rainfall next winter and they don't do this again to us," Marlin said. "If they do, we will be in the same spot we are right now."

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