U.S. Water News Online
LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. -- Gunning the 200-horsepower engine
on his Mako Marine patrol boat, Roy Wagner skims across Lake
Arrowhead, churning the surface of a lake as empty as the
million-dollar summer homes that crowd its shores.
At a time when the lake high in the San Bernardino Mountains
should be brimming, a gritty necklace of sand marks that shore, like
a ring around a bathtub 2.2 miles in length.
Pricey boats sit stranded in the dirt. Docks rise in the air,
their ladders seemingly straining to reach the drooping waterline
below. The lake's lone island has become a peninsula.
Three years of anemic amounts of rain and snow have left the
private lake down 12 feet - and dropping.
"We'll be another 6 or 7 feet below that," Wagner, the lake's
safety supervisor, predicts by summer's end.
While California overall enjoys normal levels of precipitation
this year, thanks to the storms that have blanketed the Sierra Nevada
with snow, the southern end of the state faces drought-like
conditions and the prospect of destructive wildfires.
So far this season, Southern California has received just
one-third the amount of precipitation it normally relies upon, said
Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist with the state Department of Water
For most of the region, including cities like Los Angeles and San
Diego, the lack of rain does not automatically mean water shortages.
Water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River
represents the bulk of what is used, making local conditions less of
In isolated pockets of Southern California, however, and
especially those tucked high in the mountains, imported water is not
"Those are the only areas of concern," said John Gorman, a
meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Residents there are more vulnerable to drought since they are
wholly dependent on what can be found locally in wells, behind dams
and in lakes to slake their thirst.
"This is our fourth year of less-than-half-of-normal
precipitation," said Dottie Saville, general manager of the city of
Big Bear Lake's department of water, which supplies its customers
solely with water it pumps from the ground. "It's getting pretty
At the popular San Bernardino Mountains resort area 87 miles east
of Los Angeles, just 5.23 inches of rain and snow have fallen since
July 1, 2001, prompting strict restrictions on when residents can
water. Officials are planning to sink more wells and are considering
ways to ease the crunch, including the pricey alternative of buying
water from elsewhere.
In normal years, precipitation is not a problem. The area should
have received a whopping 19.1 inches by mid-March, according to the
National Weather Service. Instead, Big Bear Lake, like Lake
Arrowhead, has dropped a dozen feet as runoff from the mountains has
Since Lake Arrowhead draws its drinking water from the 140-foot
deep lake itself, there is no risk of a shortage there. Still,
mothers like Stacey McKay, general manager of the association that
manages Lake Arrowhead, remind their children not to be wasteful.
"My kids turn on the water and I go, 'What's that?' And they go,
'That's the lake level going down,'" McKay said.
Even with a few El Nino-enhanced years of rain, the lake deficit
can take two or three years to erase, as happened after the drought
that ended in 1991. The dry weather has also prompted fears that fire
season will come early. Mountain slopes normally blanketed in snow
are already tinder dry.
"We could be looking at August-type fire conditions here rather
quickly," said Jim Wright, an official of the California Department
of Forestry and Fire Protection, which has already begun adding staff
and equipment in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
"We are gearing up for the worst."
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