Drought is a drain on California lake, reservoir tourism

At Castaic Lake north of Santa Clarita, a Father's Day fishing tournament was moved because the lake is too shallow to launch boats.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Jared Rhodes spent the last four summers leading white-water rafting trips in the Sierra mountains.

During the off-season, the 34-year-old picked up jobs at bike shops and restaurants to tide him over until the winter snow melted.

“I have a real passion for the outdoors,” Rhodes said. “I want to find a way to do it full time.”


That’s gotten tougher with California suffering a punishing drought. The rafting company that had employed him, Kern River Outfitters in Wofford Heights, has shut down for the season because of low water levels.

The drought is disrupting a variety of summer activities that help make up the state’s $85-billion outdoor recreation industry, the nation’s largest. Experts say it will deal a severe blow to rural communities that rely heavily on skiing, fishing and camping.

“In these small places, outdoor recreation becomes the economic engine,” said David Rolloff, a professor of recreation and parks management at Cal State Sacramento. “The impact can be felt much more on a local level.”

The drought already has done away with seasonal jobs and long-established events throughout the state.

A swimming lagoon at Castaic Lake north of Santa Clarita that draws 160,000 visitors a year has been closed. A Father’s Day fishing tournament was moved because the lake is too shallow to launch boats. A yachting race that attracts as many as 300 boats to a popular Sierra Nevada lake has been canceled for the first time in 60 years.

“It’s never been this bad,” said Nancy Omachi, owner of the Huntington Lake Resort.

Omachi operates a restaurant, marina and nine rental cabins along the nearly five-mile lake. The water level has dropped to about a third of capacity, discouraging sailors, anglers and campers.


Business is down about 30%, Omachi said, forcing her to reduce her staff to seven workers from 12. She is thinking about closing the steakhouse restaurant on Sundays and operating only Fridays and Saturdays.

To compensate for the loss of boaters, Omachi is promoting a “monster kite” festival in August.

“We’ve got a lot of beach now,” she said of the lake.

The low water levels come after the meager snowfall last winter that forced ski resorts statewide to close weeks early. The number of ski visits shrank to 4.9 million from the five-year average of 6.8 million, according to the California Ski Industry Assn.

Even Mammoth Mountain, which boasts the state’s highest elevation, reported 10% fewer skiers and snowboarders than the 2011-12 season. In Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, resorts at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit reported a combined drop in skiers of about 20% from the previous season.

Conditions were so bad that Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January as water levels in state reservoirs sank. Now, water levels are so low that state officials closed off sections of nearly 20 rivers to sport fishing this spring, and have hinted that other rivers may be shut this fall.

At those that remain open, anglers are finding disappointing conditions. Fly fisherman Lowell Ashbaugh went fishing on the lower Sacramento River in February and said he had to venture farther up river to find enough flowing water to fish.


“The river was the lowest I’ve ever seen it,” Ashbaugh said. “I had to fish places I’ve never fished before.”

On the Kern River, at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, the white-water rafting season typically runs from May to September.

But this year, Kern River Outfitters canceled the entire season for the first time since it began operating in 1981. The company usually employs about 25 guides who lead 4,000 to 5,000 visitors each season.

“We looked at snow depth levels and runoff and just decided there wasn’t enough water,” said Bob Volpert, chief executive of Kern River Outfitters.

In the Sierra mountains east of Fresno, Huntington Lake has for decades been a popular destination for campers, boaters and anglers. But the drought has shrunk the sky-blue lake to about one-third its former size, leaving most boat docks resting on dry shores.

The conditions forced the Fresno Yacht Club to cancel its annual regatta for the first time in the club’s 60-year history. The regatta, scheduled for two weekends in July, was expected to draw 150 boats each weekend.


It is one of several boat races that have been canceled for the lake, drying up commerce for grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses, said Daniel Irwin, commodore for the club.

“It’s a lot of money not going into that particular community,” Irwin said.

In the mountains around Big Bear Lake, local officials have been promoting other outdoor activities to compensate for the low ski visitor turnout. Snow Summit plans to open two high-speed quad lifts this summer for mountain bikers.

“Mountain biking has taken off to another level,” said Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the Big Bear Lake Resort Assn. “But it won’t make up for the low ski numbers. Snow is our bread and butter.”