Newsletter of the Big Bear Municipal Water District (Fall/Winter 2016)

Bathymetry Chart (Lake Levels)
Bathymetry Chart (Lake Levels)

Below is a quick article provided by the Big Bear Municipal Water District regarding the lake levels in Big Bear Lake through their most recent Newsletter called Lake Views.  With the obvious low lake level being on everyone’s mind I thought it was timely, informative, and worthy of sharing.


The history of fluctuating lake levels changes daily depending on who you ask and how many times the story has been told.  Currently there are few reliable sources of information but here are some facts to put it in perspective.

Over the last 114 years, the State of California Department of Water Resources has been collecting and storing historical data regarding rain and snow fall along with inflow to California lakes.  Rain and snowfall data has also been collected at the Bear Valley Dam, specifically since 1909.  What we do know is that Big Bear Lake is just over one hundred years old and has filled only eleven times.  In-between those full years we have had varying conditions, depending on precipitation.

In recent years (which is as far as most can remember) Big Bear Lake filled in 2011 and the District had to release what would have spilled over the top of the Dam.  Just shy of 10,000 acre feet of water, the equivalent of 1/7th of the total volume of the Lake, ran straight into the ocean.  That amount of water would fill approximately 5,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Since early Spring 2012 to date, the Lake has dropped due to evaporation to 16’3″ down from full.  This is the quickest mother nature has taken from the Lake with evaporation and not given back with valley precipitation in recorded history; an alarming number considering there is no end in sight.

The Lake was in a similar situation in 2004 and on October 17th it started to rain at 3:45 in the afternoon.  It continued to rain and snow until the following Spring.  The Lake was sitting at 4′ down from full in May of 2005 and then filled to capacity in 2006.  We have been here before, and we will be here again.

Unfortunately, weather predictions tend to feel like darts and don’t always hit the board and surely not the bullseye.  Farmer’s almanac says get out the snow shovels while the ocean is cooling more towards a La Nina pattern.  The winter of 2015-2016 was touted as a monster El Nino which had everyone tuning up the snow blower.  Northern California and the State Water Project benefited greatly while lakes in the south remained dry.  Interesting fact:  Big Bear Lake has never filled and spilled during an El Nino event but has twice filled during a La Nina year.

The next rumor to squash is that we have a secret pipe to fill the Lake  or we let all the water out for people to make Kool-Aid.  Precipitation that falls within our 72 square mile watershed is the only way water is added to the Lake or aquifer.  Only about 42 square miles of that watershed contributes to Big Bear Lake with the balance flowing towards Baldwin Lake.  The division in the watershed is right around well…Division Drive.  The east portion of the watershed has significantly less precipitation than the west end of the watershed.

What Mother Nature doesn’t deliver in any given year, the District has made an agreement to minimize the effect on our Lake with a negotiated water purchase from Valley Municipal Water District (a water wholesaler) who would purchase from the state water project and deliver straight to Big Bear Valley Mutual Water Company (the owner of the water in Big Bear Lake).  This agreement is what we now refer to as the In-Lieu Water Agreement.  This contract is very complicated; however, the short explanation is the District buys water (over a million dollars annually) in-lieu of releasing water from the Lake.

The idea was to protect the local economy from suffering from the drastic Lake level draw-downs experienced in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Today, as this is written, the Lake would be below 25′ down without this agreement.

Stand by because we have been here before and we will experience this again, maybe the next edition of the Lake Views newsletter will have us writing about flooding and what to do with all the water.  The Lake level cycle in the Big Bear Valley is to be continued…

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