Running Dry: Oroville Lake community puts call out for tourists amid dropping water levels

OROVILLE, Calif. (KTVU) - California's drought is not only affecting homes, businesses and farms, but also recreation.

Lake Oroville is California's second largest reservoir after Shasta Lake, and a popular destination for boaters and fishermen.

Many of the City of Oroville's 16,000 residents rely on the tourists who come to town every summer to enjoy the lake.

But there have been fewer visitors.

Dramatic pictures of Lake Oroville have in some ways come to symbolize California's drought.

The side by side images of a full and nearly empty lake have spread across the Internet giving outsiders the impression the lake is almost dried up.

Oroville Chamber of Commerce president Claudia Knaus says that's hurting the area's economy.

"When people have the perception that there's no water, they don't come," she told KTVU. The lake is lower, but it's not dry, as some people might expect after seeing the pictures.

Bill Harper runs the Bidwell Canyon Marina and he says the perception and reality of the drought have caused a drop in business.

"Our attendance is probably down 40 percent, every bit of that," he told KTVU. "The drought is really impacting our business."

At this time of the year the lake level should be rising a foot a day thanks to spring runoff. With no snowpack, there's no runoff, and the lake is dropping a foot a day.

At capacity the lake covers about 15,000 acres. Right now there's about 10,000 acres of surface water which is still plenty for boaters. But the perception of a dried up hole where the lake should be persists.

Knaus says the internet photos cut both ways.

"On the bright side it's gotten Lake Oroville to be known and people know the name but of course the drama of those pictures of the lake being so low doesn't look good at all."

As the lake level drops, access on boat ramps worsens. Paved ramps only reach so far and by the summer's end it will be impossible to get boats in and out of the water.

Marina operators have asked house boat owners to park their boats on shore if they're not using them, to make way for others as the lake surface shrinks.

Maddie Blackburn and her family from Granite Bay were loading up their ski boat recently in preparation for a weekend on Lake Oroville.

"The water's gone down a lot," she told KTVU.

"Actually last night we woke up and could see cables coming out more than we did even last night so the water's definitely going down a lot."

She says her family usually boats on Lake Oroville about ten times a summer.

This year they expect to make about three trips before the lake level falls so low they won't be able to get their boat in. "It will be sad," she said.

The expectation of lower lake levels is having a ripple effect across Oroville. Kiran Paragja runs a 69 room motel.

"We're hanging in there and we're trying to do the best we can," he told KTVU.

He says the motel is packed during fishing tournaments. He's wondering if those tournaments will continue.

"The worst thing that can happen is they cancel all the tournaments that are coming up and that might be a possibility because there's not going to be any rain coming," he said.

Back at Bidwell Canyon Marina, Bill Harper says he hasn't had to lay off any of his 40 employees - yet.

"We're just a small part of this drought but people really need to start saving water and they need to start doing it today," he said.

In the meantime the people of Oroville are trying to get the word out - they have water, at least for now.