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Mother Lode Lakes Still Filling

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Sonora, CA — With snowmelt still sending above average inflows down the Sierras, nearly brimming local reservoirs are creating a season for recreaters like few others in recent memory.

Over at the State Department of Water Resources spokesperson Doug Carlson shares, “The fact is that, compared to the historical average, every lake that we track except for Oroville and Perris [in southernmost California] is above their historical average — and most are near full — and you know that is significant because of all the tremendous amount of rainful that we had…snowfall, and snowmelt and run off.”

Don Pedro, Lake McClure and Folsom reservoirs are all currently sitting within one or two percent of capacity. Folsom and Don Pedro are respectively at 121 and 125 percent of their historic averages for this time of year; McClure is reading at 141 percent of its historic average.

New Melones, which, relative to how it looked before the wickedly wet stretch of winter weather descended on the Mother Lode, appears to also be brimming. However, it is actually measuring in today at just 91 percent of its capacity, which is 144 percent of its historic average (click into the image box slideshow for recent images). At Lake Tulloch, which fills every year, water levels seem to be sitting a bit higher than normal, judging from the fact that they look to be at or even a teensy bit above the high-water line marks around the lake at the Tulloch Bridge.

Carlson points to a good bit of snow still sitting within the Sierra “snow pillows.” As he explains, “Some are shaded due to mountain peaks and downslope on the shady side — and those areas are still reporting somewhat higher than normal snowpack water equivalent. Up in the north for example, [levels are] something like 182 percent of normal, according to the snow pillow readings.” He says but at this point the readings are essentially meaningless since we are perhaps within two weeks of the peak snowmelt — and far enough into summer with triple-digit heat, to boot. He comments, “It is enough to say that there is still snow in the mountains and we are going to continue to see the melt and runoff probably through July and maybe not much further.”

During this time, Carlson notes that reservoir operators will be watching carefully how much water they can still take in while holding back as much as they can for downstream and down-calendar requirements. He adds, “Since the rivers are bound to remain fast-moving and high for quite awhile yet, I can only echo what the authorities say who are concerned about emergency response and what can happen in fast-moving rivers — and that is to say ‘stay out of them’ There is no sense of risking your life just to be a daredevil or just to cool off in a fast-moving river that is flowing very dangerously fast.”

Offering a possible alternative he remarks, “I would go to a lake…a reservoir that does not have any algae blooms in it — if you must cool off in a body of water…snow is still melting from the highest elevation peaks in the southern Sierra, where the temperatures are cooler and people need to be very careful even if they venture even a little bit into these [associated] rivers.”

Asked about the trending heat and the chance of another wet weather bout anytime soon, Carlson cracks that in California, which has more variable weather than any state in the nation, it is hard to predict with much accuracy more than ten days. The wet 2016 El Nino winter did not happen, he notes dryly, exclaiming, “Nobody saw the 2017 water-year’s tremendous amount of rainfall — almost twice as much in the north as in a typical year!” Barring any atypical weather in the next three months however, he confides that the Northern California, San Joaquin and Tulare Basin areas his office monitors are all trending essentially flat, rain-wise, through September, the end of this water-year. “Could something strange happen?” he asks rhetorically. Yes, he sums up, chuckling, “But based on the historical average it would not be typical.”