Water, water, not as everywhere as it used to be, so get in it while you still can.
Fans of Central Valley and foothill lakes and reservoirs came out in force Memorial Day weekend. Families and friends used the holiday to soak and splash in some of the region’s most popular recreational watering holes.
As California enters its fourth year of unprecedented drought, the once-plentiful water in snowmelt-filled lakes continues to shrink dramatically. Still, all of the area’s recreational reservoirs and lakes are open for swimming, boating, fishing and other water sports.
“It’s really great out here. This is the third year we’ve come out (for Memorial Day weekend),” said San Francisco resident Alan Gomes, who traveled to Woodward Reservoir with a large group from the Bay Area. “We like it because of the shade and the camping and the barbecue and the water. That’s what we do here.”
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But whether some recreational lakes will remain open all summer, or further into the future, remains in question. In April a deal was struck between local irrigation districts and the State Water Resources Control Board to keep Lake Tulloch full through the middle of September. Woodward Reservoir opened at the beginning of April and should remain open until Sept. 14, said South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields.
“In a year like this you never know who comes up with something new. But at this point, we see no reason why it wouldn’t remain fully accessible through the summer,” Shields said. “We don’t know what’s going to come out of the state and the federal government in terms of requirements. The state water board has a very difficult summer ahead. I hate to say go ahead and plan your vacations, because who knows, but we see no reason that there should be any issues.”
At Oakdale’s Woodward Reservoir, crowds started arriving slowly over the weekend because of the mild weather. But reservoir manager Cheryl Jackson said she expects it to pick up as the holiday continues. By Saturday afternoon lines had formed at the entrance, with visitors coming from as far as San Francisco, Sacramento and even Los Angeles county. On an average weekend, some 10,000 to 12,000 visitors come to the reservoir, and the figure can climb to 15,000 to 25,000 on popular holiday weekends such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
Current levels at Woodward, Tulloch and Modesto Reservoir remain near normal because they largely serve as storage stations for area irrigation and drinking water. But at larger upstream lakes such as Don Pedro, New Melones and McClure, the drought’s impact is immediately visible. Shorelines at all three lakes have plummeted hundreds of feet because of the record-low Sierra Nevada snowpack.
The Don Pedro Recreation Agency predicts that by the end of summer, water levels will be at the lowest point since 1977. The lake currently sits at 41 percent capacity, according to the Department of Water Resources.
For area boaters, this means fewer and busier launches. Lake Don Pedro has been reduced to a two-lane ramp at Fleming Meadows. Moccasin Point remains open for shallow-draft vessels only, and Blue Oaks is closed. The annual fireworks display over the lake has been canceled this year, as it was last year, because of the dry conditions.
To the north, New Melones Lake – at 19 percent capacity – only has launch access at Glory Hole Recreation Area, and four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended because it’s on natural surface. Its Tuttletown boat ramps are closed. To the south at Lake McClure, at 11 percent capacity, recreation has been limited to the Barrett Cove and Lake McSwain Recreation Areas. The Barrett Cove north ramp remains open, but Bagby, Horseshoe Bend, McClure Point and Barrett Cove south ramp all are closed.
The lack of access at the large lakes means more boaters are coming to places such as Woodward to play instead. Sheriff’s Sgt. Dennis Cordova said he has seen a different kind of boat, more tower and wakeboard vessels, come to the smaller reservoir because there is abundant water and easy launches. All three of Woodward’s boat launches are open and operational this summer.
Sacramento resident Jocelyn Cervania came to Woodward with family and friends for a day trip. They originally had planned to go to Lake Sonoma but changed course when the water level was too low. Children from the group splashed and played in a large rubber dingy tied to the shore.
“It doesn’t look like a drought here,” she said. “I was actually surprised there was so much water. But it’s nice for the kids to be able to play right on the shore like this.”
Just because there’s less water in some places doesn’t mean there isn’t still plenty to cause problems for people who aren’t careful. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection put out a warning reminding the public that drownings “increase dramatically” during this holiday weekend. The higher temperatures and cool water in area lakes can be a dangerous combination.
Sheriff’s Detective Eugene Day, who has worked lake patrol at Woodward for the past seven years, said the department does a lot of boating education for its visitors to keep them safe on the water. That includes informing them about speed limits within certain zones, proper traffic patterns and not boating while intoxicated.
“We just want to educate people who are out here,” Day said. “We want everyone to have a good, safe experience so they want to come out. Without them, what’s the point of us being here? And luckily, in general, people really do want to be safe.”
Day said the reservoir staff and Sheriff’s Department have teamed up for a life-jacket lending program. Visitors can borrow life jackets – in sizes infant to 6X – for free to use on the shore or in boats. In the four years the program has been running, one of the 150 available life jackets has not been returned.
Reservoir manager Jackson said they also have started a new clean boating and safety program to encourage good environmental practices. Stanislaus County representatives will be at the lake all summer giving away bilge pillows, which absorb oil from spills or accidents, to boaters who take a quick survey. The program also encourages recycling and other water safety guidelines.
While prospects for this year’s water recreation season are looking up, Jackson said she worries about summers to come. She said the area’s reservoirs are invaluable to the region’s tourism and commerce.
“If there’s no water for agriculture, drinking and even recreation, it’ll hurt us all,” she said. “The more people can conserve, the better for everyone.”
LAKE FEES & CONTACTS
Lake Don Pedro: Day use $10, boats $8, camping $24-$41, (209) 852-2396
New Melones Lake: Day use $8, boats $10, camping $18-$150, (209) 536-9543
Lake McClure: Day use $8, boats $7, camping $25-$34, (209) 354-2960
Woodward Reservoir: Day use $10, boat $7, camping $20-$60, (209) 847-3304
Modesto Reservoir: Day use $10, boat $7, camping $20-$60, (209) 874-9540
Lake Tulloch: Day use $10 weekday/$15 weekend, boat $10, camping $25-$150, (800) 894-2267
Turlock Lake: Day use $11, boat $7, camping $33, (209) 874-2056