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Higher water level at Lake Shasta is actually another sign of worsening drought

Higher water level at Lake Shasta is actually another sign of worsening drought
Higher water level at Lake Shasta is actually another sign of worsening drought 03:58

SHASTA LAKE, Shasta County -- As California hopes for some much-needed rainfall this week, it's hard to overstate just how much ground needs to be made up. The state is now in its third year of drought, and it's already the third stretch of drought years in the past two decades. The dry conditions are reflected in our state's reservoir levels. 

Lake Shasta is now at 31% of its total capacity or 58% of its historical average for this time of year. And while it may sound paradoxical, the reservoir is actually higher now than it was this time last year. It's a strange quirk that reminds us just how complicated water can be in California, but that higher lake level isn't exactly good news.

"Gotta get the dog," said Harold Jones, corralling a group of visitors into a goodbye photograph. "Thanks for coming up, and hope to see you again soon."

With the group photo for his parting guests, Jones is winding down another weekend, and his 29th year running the Sugarloaf Cottages on Lake Shasta.

"We've seen a lot of changes, he explained. "We've seen the lake go up and we've seen the lake go down. And we've seen it recover quickly"

As California sinks deeper into worsening drought, there's an interesting and welcome phenomenon for those who depend on this lake for their livelihoods. Shasta is up.

"It's about 30 feet higher, the lake is, this year than last year," Jones explained from his dock. "That all has to do with the amount of control that the bureau has taken and letting the water out. And they're holding water back and we've all benefited from that this year."

People on the lake have benefitted from the Bureau of Reclamation's conservative, drought-minded management this year. That only means things have to be increasingly efficient downriver. That's farmers in the valley, and a lot of people in the Bay Area for whom Shasta is an important part of the water supply.

"So, Contra Costa Water District, we get our water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," said district spokesperson Jennifer Allen.

Delta water is, in part, Shasta water, but the lake level now doesn't change anything for the district.

"You know, the change is a data point for the year, that we can see what water is available," Allen explained. "But at this point, it doesn't change anything as far as our water allocation for the year."

In fact, the belt-tightening that has bumped up the water line - at least compared to 2021 - is really another sign that the drought looms even larger at home.

"We're still in prolonged drought conditions and feeling the potential changes of our climate, and looking at ways we can be more resilient into the future," Allen said.

"It's hard for us as business owners up here," Jones said of the situation on the lake. "Someone calls us and we say 'OK, yeah, our docks are in the water. We have boats. There's plenty of water.' But they're skeptical."

The additional 30 feet of water has kept docks floating, but it hasn't exactly lifted business. Jones blames a lot of news about drought and what drivers can see from the interstate.

"They think the lake is empty because when they go across I-5, all they see is one little spot of the lake," he said. "They look at that and they think 'Oh my goodness, the lake is empty.'

So even in drought, what's 'low' can be a matter of perspective.

"Honestly, I just look up at the sky. And what it gives us is what it gives us," Jones said of what's coming next.

After 29 years, he knows fortunes can change quickly here. And when they do, this lake can change quickly as well.

"One good winter in the water will be pretty much back up to where those trees here are," Jones said, pointing to a potential shoreline. "And it's just a matter, right now, of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best."

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