The warm days of an Indian Summer might feel like the perfect chance to fit in some lakeside lounging before the winter rains hit, but that same invitingly warm sun is sucking South County’s lakes dry.
Rainfall at Lake San Antonio and Nacimiento is at record lows, and despite a pledge on the county parks website – “Visitors can enjoy active water sports all year” – county officials are considering closing Lake San Antonio to recreation for the first time in the park’s history.
“We are looking at scenarios, maybe closing,” Monterey County Parks Director Michael Ferry says. “The water’s at the lowest level it’s ever been.”
Boating, fishing and swimming on the lakes help County Parks fulfill its recreational mission, Ferry says, considering other parks offers trails and athletic fields. But agriculture comes before recreation in the stakeholder lineup, and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency releases water from the dams to help feed the Salinas River during the dry summer and early fall months.
The effects of this year’s low rainfall are exacerbated by the temporary shutdown of the dam at Lake Nacimiento, the bigger of the two, where officials had to make a $1 million emergency repair on the hydroelectric plant. That forced MCWRA to draw from the already-low San Antonio to the north.
County Supervisor Simon Salinas says the parks revenue, generated by user fees from campers and boaters, has always been touch-and-go, dependent upon fickle weather. But water storage projects that might aid flood control efforts and agricultural needs would also help sustain recreation year-round.
“Hopefully in the future, there will be an inter-dam tunnel that could help store more water and prolong the season,” he says. (The possibility of a $40-90 million pipeline is still just a concept.)
The two 1960s-era dams were built primarily to help control flooding along the Salinas River, and to provide surface water to agricultural users. By tapping the Salinas River, growers use less water from wells, curbing saltwater intrusion.
“THE WATER’S AT THE LOWEST LEVEL IT’S EVER BEEN.”
As far as recreation, County Parks is looking at ways of trying to diversify. The annual Wildflower Triathlon is the biggest draw to the lakes, but Ferry is exploring alternatives for the off-season. “We’re looking at different ideas, maybe a summer concert under the stars,” he says. They’re planning to launch an online campsite reservation system early next year, helping manage busy weekends – like Thanksgiving – for the 1,000 campsites at the two lakes.
With an annual operating budget of $6.3 million, Lake Nacimiento and San Antonio account for nearly half of County Parks’ total budget. Lake San Antonio generates over $1.4 million in user fees from camping and boating.
“At least you can still launch a boat, fish and water ski [at Nacimiento],” one Facebook commenter wrote on the Lake San Antonio Resort wall. “That’s an empty mud hole! Really sad!!”
Salinas recalls tactics considered in 1993-94, the only other period when water levels dropped this much. There was an effort at cloud seeding, and a discussion with Native American groups – “They have a way of making their requests with Mother Nature,” Salinas says. As to whether it’s worth soliciting their help again, he says, “It doesn’t hurt.”