Water Levels Low, But Not Critical
By Judi Bowers, Big Bear Grizzly
Governor Jerry Brown has issued a state of emergency. Fire officials are concerned. Water purveyors are cautious. The ski resorts are offering special deals in the middle of the season.
The drought is real.
Mike Stephenson, lake manager for the Big Bear Municipal Water District, says Bear Mountain and Snow Summit are not in jeopardy of running out of water for snowmaking this year. Although the snow covering the runs is entirely man-made, there is still plenty available by contract for the resorts, Stephenson said. The contract allows for 1,300 acre feet per year, with a maximum of 10,000 acre feet in a 10-year rolling cycle. Stephenson says the resorts haven’t used 1,000 acre feet per year in a long time.
With cold, dry Santa Ana Wind conditions, the nighttime temperatures are ideal for snowmaking. But other than that, “it’s pretty darn dry,” Stephenson says.
And that means Big Bear Lake levels are down, but not dangerously low. There are pros and cons to the lake levels. When the level is down this low, the in-lieu agreement prevents Bear Valley Mutual from taking water from Big Bear Lake, Stephenson says.
As far as the fishery, the put-and-grow species aren’t being impacted. Those are the trout. Lower levels do affect the warm water species some, Stephenson says.
The biggest impact for the MWD is recreation traffic in terms of boaters when the lake level is low, Stephenson says. Some boaters may choose to go elsewhere.
But there is a positive to the water being at this level, slightly less than 9 feet below full, he says. There are beaches and places for lake users to park and recreate. Recreation use is best around 6 feet below full, but eight feet down is average, Stephenson says.
When the lake drops to 10 or more feet below full, hazards start appearing, according to Stephenson. But the rumors that the lake is going to lose 10 feet to evaporation due to the warm weather are not true, he says.
Percentage wise, the lake is not in dire straits, Stephenson says. At full, the lake has 2,991 surface acres. Right now, the lake sits at 2,625 surface acres. If he was a water purveyor such as the Big Bear Lake Department of Water and Power or the Big Bear City Community Services District, which rely on groundwater, he might be more concerned, Stephenson says.
The DWP and CSD rely entirely on Mother Nature to fill their aquifers. Improved infrastructure since the last major drought period such as new wells, reservoirs and boosters have kept water supplies more stable, says Reggie Lamson, general manager of the DWP. More homes are equipped with low-flow shower heads and toilets. Additionally, conservation has become more of a lifestyle change.
That doesn’t mean Lamson isn’t being cautious regarding the lack of precipitation. Odd/even watering is still in effect, and the conservation message is still one that the DWP spreads, he says. With 70 percent of the DWP’s customers living off the hill, he’s hoping the governor’s declaration to conserve will be a mindset those second home owners retain when using their mountain homes. Water is a valuable commodity, Lamson says.
The DWP water use is still well below the perennial yield, Lamson says. He might become more concerned if the spring water table measurements show a significant drop, but Lamson says he would be surprised if that occurs.
He says he did see a spike in production during the Christmas holiday period. There was no snow, but there were a lot of people in the Valley, Lamson says. He says people could have watered landscaping or used water for other things not normally done in winter.
Overall, the production for the current year, from July 1 to Dec. 31, is up 1.03 percent, Lamson says. There is no need for red lights and sirens just yet, but awareness is required, Lamson says.
On the east end, the CSD’s sub-basin water levels are down. A chart showing the average for the West Baldwin Sub-Basin indicates the water level down 17.34 feet as of December 2013. The measurement is the depth to reach water.
In 2012, levels started dropping in April and May, recovering slightly by the end of December to 8.48 feet down. The level has dropped about 51 percent in the past year, 8.86 feet.
In 2009, the water levels dropped to 25.94 feet, with significant recovery in 2010 and 2011 following heavy winters. Average rainfall for January is 8.86 inches, and the CSD has recorded zero thus far.
The forecast doesn’t show any significant precipitation on the horizon, with daytime temperatures remaining in the upper 50s and low 60s for the next week. Jeff Willis, Big Bear Fire Chief, and Stephenson share the same sentiment.
They are hoping for another March Miracle like 1991 to bring winter to a moisture-starved Big Bear Valley. Last year was the first time Stephenson says he saw the lake level drop in winter, and he hopes it’s not a trend.