Critically low water levels at Lake Shasta, California's largest reservoir

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

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

"This year, we are 124 feet down, which is a significant loss of a lot of storage," said Don Bader, the northern California area manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees Shasta Dam and manages the water flowing from the lake.

No matter where you look at Lake Shasta you can see the dramatic "bathtub ring" – bright orange soil contrasting with the blue water and the green tree line. It's a visual reminder of the severity of California’s drought, and one not seen on a day-to-day basis in places like the Bay Area.

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

"The past 3 years it has been really, really dreadful to see these days having zero rainfall throughout the months," Bader said. 

KTVU spoke to Bader standing on top of Shasta Dam.

"Why are we that low? Well, we just went through the worst three years – consecutive years – for lack of rainfall. The worst three years we have had up here since this dam was built," Bader said.

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

"Everybody starts to feel the pinch when they start to realize that they are not going to get the amount of water that they normally do," Bader said. 

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

Less water also means less electricity is generated from the five massive generator turbines at the base of the dam.

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

What is happening here at Lake Shasta also directly impacts water policy here in the Bay Area such as watering restrictions and drought surcharges on your bill.

"Conservation is a new way of life," said John Varela, chair of the Board of Directors of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

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

"We are dependent on water that we import which is less than we have received in the past because of the drought," Varela said.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District receives its allotment of water from Lake Shasta through the Central Valley Project, a water distribution canal system which runs up and down the Central Valley and delivers water from Lake Shasta to locations as far south as Bakersfield.

The drought is also impacting tourism which is a key driver of the local economy in Shasta County. Christoper Fematt, from Pittsburg in Contra Costa County, was house boating at Lake Shasta with some friends. He was interviewed well below what would be considered the normal waterline.

"It is unfathomable to be this deep in the water that I used to believe was so high," Fematt said.

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

"For those that do not leave the Bay Area, they are not going to see this," 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 out into the receding lake in order to keep their business running.

"Normally we are back up in our cove. But due to low lake levels, we do move our docks out. It takes about 2 weeks to move them out," said Kevin Kelley, the operations manager of Holiday Harbor. 

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

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

Despite some adjustments, the lake is still open for recreation, which is an important point for local businesses that fear the drought could scare off tourists and hurt the local economy.

"We have rebounded from this before and here on the lake, even though it is down, there is tons of water out here for recreation, and to ski, and vacation," Kelley said.  

Kelley, who has spent his whole life on and around Lake Shasta, has this message for water users throughout the state.

"Conserve water if you can. If you can conserve water, it helps all of California, not just Lake Shasta," Kelley said.