L.A. Now

Big Bear Lake filled to the brim

Icy lake water has swamped the kayak hut and gangplanks at Pleasure Point Marina, and owner Roy Brownie couldn't be happier.

After near-record amounts of snow and rain in the San Bernardino Mountains over the last year, wind-blown waves are cresting over Big Bear Lake's 74-foot dam and have forced the agency managing the lake to release water downstream for the first time in 15 years.

For Brownie, the bountiful snowmelt has scrubbed away the residue of the most recent dry spell, which brought a 17-foot drop in lake levels, years of cracked-earth shorelines and, at the lowest point, a gratis rain dance by a sympathetic Shoshone shaman.

"A few more inches and the water would be in all the buildings but, you know what, a high lake is a good lake," said Brownie, 77, a retired computer engineer whose marina was once owned by singing cowboy Roy Rogers and wife Dale Evans.

The battery of storms that swept through California this winter filled lakes and reservoirs throughout the state to near capacity, as well as recharging groundwater caches, bringing an official end to the latest of California's cyclical droughts.

The Sierra snowpack, the all-important water source for nearly a third of Californians, remains 165% above normal, and some of the state's largest reservoirs already are releasing excess water that is flowing into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and, ultimately, San Francisco Bay. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies drinking water to 19 million people from Ventura County to the Mexican border, has a year's supply in reserve.

"It's been really pretty phenomenal, especially considering that back in the fall we were looking at La Niña conditions that tend to indicate a relatively dry winter," said Frank Gehrke of the state Department of Water Resources and chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys program. "During California winters, you can go from feast to famine."

In 2010 alone, Big Bear was inundated with 64 inches of snow and rain — the fifth highest level in the last century and twice as much as it received the year before — topped by 6 more inches of fresh powder in early April.

The late storm will allow the Snow Summit ski resort to stay open until Easter, but even that gift to skiers and snowboarders hasn't been enough to rescue the resort, and the mountain communities around it, from a subpar winter tourist season.

"At lot of people are surprised to hear that," said Chris Riddle, spokesman for Big Bear Mountain Resorts, which owns the Snow Summit and Bear Mountain ski areas. "It's been a great season for skiers and snowboarders. Businesswise, it was an average to slightly below average year, even with all the snow."

Riddle blamed the lingering effects of the recession, as well as damage from the very storms that delivered the abundance of snow and rain. A series of fierce rainstorms in December washed out Highway 330 to Running Springs, which is the quickest route up the mountain to Big Bear for most Southern Californians and remains closed to all but local residents.

"It's just a combination of those bad things. I've seen a 20% drop in business since last year," said Jaymes Nordine, owner of the Grizzly Manor Cafe, a popular breakfast spot known for its heart-stopping "Blob" — biscuits and gravy, bacon and cheese, all topped by eggs. "Right now, everyone is just trying to make it until summer. Because we know it's going to be a great summer."

With all the fresh snowmelt streaming into the lake, and stagnant, oxygen-depleted water being released from the bottom of the Bear Valley Dam, the water quality in Big Bear has risen and the rainbow trout are flourishing. Spawning season has been robust in the streams that course into the lake, enlivened by the pools of ample snowmelt trickling down from the still-snow-covered mountain to the west.

"We're going to have an amazing spring and fall on the lake," said fishing guide Cliff Fowler, who works out of Pine Knot Landing on the southern shore.

Braving a recent 45-degree morning, with a biting wind from the west, Fowler led a young family onto the lake and hooked 17 trout in just two hours. Fowler, who moved up the mountain from Glendale in 1972 and ran a local sporting goods store for decades, said he's never seen the lake in such prime condition.

"Even after the 'Miracle of '93,' the lake didn't get quite this full," said Fowler, referring to the year when Big Bear was pummeled by storms that dropped 61 inches of snow and rain in January and February.

The Big Bear Municipal Water District, which manages the lake, plans to keep it as full as possible for as long as possible — even though lakeside beaches are underwater, and erosion on the north shore has some juniper trees on the brink of toppling over.

"There's no way to tell if next year will be dry or like this year," said General Manager Scott Heule. "There's no average year in California."

There is minimal risk of flood or lakeside homes being damaged, Heule said, because a rise in the lake would send water spilling over the dam — and eventually into the Santa Ana River. The agency began releasing water from the bottom of the dam, built in 1911, to keep it from spilling over the top.

Federal forestry officials said the wet winter should keep the wildfire danger at normal levels in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains until July. The snow and rain also provided relief to forests ravaged by bark beetles, which are most destructive during dry spells when the trees are stressed. More than 1.5 million dead and diseased trees, mostly Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines, have been removed from the San Bernardino Mountains since 2002 — and millions more remain.

From Crestline to Big Bear, wildfires have stripped entire mountainsides of their forests, leaving behind skeletal remains of the once-towering conifers. The rain and snow have allowed chaparral, sages and grasses to flourish in the burn areas, which may create an increased fire risk when they dry out in the summer and fall.

"Overall, it doesn't lend itself to an early fire season, that's for sure," said Robert Krohn, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Riverside. "Over the years, we were off to the races in the spring."

At nearby Lake Arrowhead, which unlike Big Bear is a private, closed lake, the storms have allowed officials to release water into the Mojave River for two years running.

The abundance of water has also quieted the feud between the local utility that taps the lake for the local drinking water supply and the homeowners association, which has fought to end any major withdrawals that might drop the lake level.

"It was pretty emotional a few years ago when the lake was down 25 feet and people couldn't get to their docks," said John Hoagland, general manager of the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District. "It's a far different story now. When the lake's full, everybody's happy."

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