Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New year, no water

In higher times: A mid-June Sunday. The lake would rise even higher
before summer was over. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petrie.
After greeting the new year with a swim at nearby Lake Natoma, I drove with my wife to Beal's Point on Folsom Lake.

I knew what I'd find because I'd been by two days before: Precious little. The water in the cove north of the point is almost gone, reduced to a muddy pond. It was like sucking on a sore tooth to go out there, inexplicably needing to revisit the pain.

Not long ago, we used to swim that cove, which is on the west side of the lake. It was about 1.3 miles round trip across the cove, to a bushy round oak tree on the opposite shore and back. We swam it in smooth water and in late-winter rain when storms had churned the surface into two-foot waves. We swam it when only a few runners up on a levee would yell down that we were crazy, and in the height of summer when ski boats would carve close by at high speed on purpose.

New Year's Day 2012: The whitish rocks on the levee behind were
under water in June, as were the trees, right up to the leaves.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Turner.
Now all that water, probably 30 feet at the deepest, is gone. The giant orange buoy which often served as a rest stop 500 yards out from the shore now lies impotently near the remaining puddle, at least another 400 yards away from where it used to float. I'm trying to figure out how the buoy, anchored to the bottom, moved so far away.

The bottom of the cove is a moonscape of dry, dry decomposed granite with a few knobs of granite sticking out here and there. Except for a small grove of trees that bear the misfortune of being flooded out winter through summer, no flora flourishes on this landscape. Almost no trash, even. I found a disposable lighter and an old juice box on one trek to the bottom of the cove, and that was it. I imagine most open-water swimmers wonder, even a little bit, what lurks below them in the opaque depths as they crawl along the surface. The answer in this case is, nothing.

This barren condition is normal, sort of; the emptiness largely artificial. Folsom Lake is a giant tool for water and flood control, a human-made reservoir collecting the snowmelt as it flows out of the Sierra into the three forks of the American River. From there, the water is let out into Lake Natoma (really the trunk of the American River) and held for release as needed into the American River, which flows into the Sacramento and out into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, then to the San Pablo Bay, then San Francisco Bay, and out to the ocean.

People like me spend disposable income and expend tremendous amounts of fuel to tow skiers on Folsom Lake, camp and hike around it, pull fish from it and swim in it.

I'd be about 20 feet under water, were there any water, right here.
The blue line marks the route we take to the tree in the distance.
The dots near the horizon on the left are horses and riders.
apr├Ęs-swim ensemble, by the way, is all the rage in these parts.
My technique is flawless; though it looks like I've fallen and can't get up.
The people in charge of controlling the water supply had drained some of the lake to make way for winter's upcoming supply from snowmelt, and the cove at Beal's Point appears to be far shallower than the center of the lake, so it empties first.

Except winter is not obliging so far. December ended as the fourth driest since records were first kept during the Gold Rush. January opens dry and warm for this time in winter. Last year near-record snows fell and the reservoirs all over the state filled to capacity.

For now, Lake Natoma is high and cold, the water taken from the bottom of Folsom Lake. Its levels change by almost a foot from one day to the next as the water controllers regulate how much to send downriver, but the reservoir remains full for the most part. Though I have been swimming in the lake for nearly a year, I don't know enough about it to say whether its levels would drop in severe drought.

Selfishly, I think of neighbors on my block who water winter and summer, the runoff sheeting across the sidewalks and forming fast-flowing rivulets down the gutters into the drains. I multiply that by the number of households across the region likely doing likewise, never adjusting their irrigation cycles to meet water needs, and wonder if I could be swimming in this cove but for that.  

Winter, do your worst. Please.

Almost nothing, as far as the eye can see …

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