California drought: Donner Lake won’t fill for first time in two decades

The west end of Donner Lake, as seen at dawn on Wednesday.

The west end of Donner Lake, as seen at dawn on Wednesday.

TRUCKEE, Calif. — For the first time in at least 20 years, Donner Lake will not reach its maximum water capacity, officials said Thursday.

In his 15 years as recreation superintendent with Truckee-Donner Recreation & Park District, Dan O’Gorman can’t remember a time Donner Lake wasn’t at its maximum water level at this point in the season.

On Thursday, O’Gorman said he estimates the west Truckee lake’s water level is about three feet lower than average this time of year, a statistic backed by officials with Truckee Meadows Water Authority.

The reduced water level is a result of a series of lackluster snow seasons, said Chad Blanchard, federal water master with the Truckee River Operating Agreement, and thus a lot less snow naturally melting into most lakes and rivers in the area.

“It’s the worst runoff we’ve ever had,” Blanchard said.

The lack of snowfall comes as California is amid its fourth year of what is now a historic drought period.

Blanchard said only 33.5 inches of total snow fell in Tahoe City in 2014, a record low for the area that just one year prior saw snowfall tie a previous low in 1939 at 59.5 inches.

While it’s typical for water levels to decline after the spring runoff climax, it doesn’t happen so drastically until the fall or winter, said Bill Hauck, senior hydrologist with TMWA.

“Donner Lake for the most part is fairly easy to fill,” Hauck said. “Even in the drier years, we don’t have too much problem filling the lake.”

At its deepest point, Donner Lake has been measured at 328 feet, or approximately 100 meters, according to the California State Lands Commission.

Further, the lake’s high-water level is 5,935.8 feet. As of Thursday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the level sat at 5,932.57

TMWA officials recognized the nearly three-mile-long lake would potentially not reach its annual capacity this spring, Hauck said, motivating the organization to seek permission from the California Department of Water Resources to take measures to manually fill it.

Though TMWA’s request was approved, it didn’t rectify the situation, Hauck said.

“We didn’t even come close to filling Donner Lake this year,” he said, adding that TMWA has had to tap into the Boca and Stampede reservoirs more liberally to keep up with seasonal customer demand.

Currently, Donner Lake is operating at about 71 percent of what is typical for this time of year, Hauck said.

In his 20 years with TMWA, he said it’s the first time he’s ever seen Donner Lake not reach its annual capacity.

Though the reduced water levels haven’t had a significant impact on lake operations, O’Gorman said the boat launch at the Tahoe Donner ramp has been closed this summer, leaving TDRPD’s West End Beach ramp as the only area for boats to get in and out of the water.

Aside from boat launching issues, O’Gorman said jumping into the lake from the district’s piers is not advisable.

“I would definitely not recommend jumping off of any of the piers right now,” he said. “It is three feet lower, so it’s definitely a safety hazard if people are jumping or diving off of those, especially if they’re not checking to see if there are submerged objects.”


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