Thanks to the miracles of software and the Internet, I put together a short slideshow comparing scenes at Lake Oroville as I shot them late last March and yesterday. If I’d known back then to what extent the lake would empty out, I would have taken pictures all along the shoreline. As it was, the pictures I did take of the lake were an afterthought, something to do before we started to head home.
The big surprise in the “after” pictures, the ones I took yesterday, is the landscape revealed by the receding waters. There’s no hint looking at the surface in March what the underwater topography looks like. And it’s amazing looking at the exposed landscape now (it was drowned in 1969, when the new reservoir was first filled) and how completely it’s been scoured of anything that might suggest that before Oroville Dam was built, these were canyons choked with oak, pine and brush.
Here’s the slideshow which includes a few bonus shots at the end):
The background: The state Department of Water Resources announced yesterday that its “initial allocation” of supplies for the next year is 5 percent. What that means: It’s only promising to deliver 5 percent of the water that customers have asked for. The reason: Three low-rainfall years–nothing Mother Nature can’t handle, but a disaster for us humans–and some limits placed on water shipments to protect endangered fish. The reaction: Agriculture and other water contractors say it sure looks like the sky is falling. So does the governor, whose biggest agenda item for his last year in office is getting the voters to pass an $11 billion bond for water projects. The rhetoric from the water interests has led some environmentalists and other water-policy skeptics to say the 5 percent allocation is little more than a scare tactic to sell the bond.
Whatever the case may be, I noticed an interesting thing in the documents the Department of Water Resources released with its allocation announcement: The water managers are cutting the promised deliveries to 5 percent even though a chart (PDF) they put out shows they have 20 percent more water in the bank than they did last year–when the initial allocation was 15 percent. One of my colleagues at KQED asked the department’s deputy director about this, and the initial answer was along the lines of, “That’s weird–I don’t know.” Later, she suggested the chart was wrong because it didn’t take into account the fact some of the water in storage is already committed to other customers and can’t be allocated. (As a matter of fact, current combined storage at major reservoirs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin system is running 17 percent ahead of last year at this time; of course, last year was really, really bad, and that same group of reservoirs is only storing 72 percent of average for this date.)
The chart still hasn’t been fixed, though, and it lends credence to the arguments that the allocation–which is only a beginning number and is likely to be adjusted far upward as the season progresses–is being used to aid the bond campaign.
Anyway; Since I got into all this stuff yesterday, and since reservoir levels are such a big part of this debate and the state’s well-being, I put together a map showing where the biggest reservoirs are and the current storage levels. Here it is: