Big Bear Lake not dry, but megadrought means challenges, big ideas – San Bernardino Sun

Look up, and lucky visitors to Big Bear Lake’s north shore this summer might be able to spot the mountain community’s famous trio of bald eagles. But in recent weeks, visitors have looked down and seen some less natural things along the lake’s rapidly expanding shoreline.

There was a decaying torso from a mannequin that popped up overnight. There were shotgun shells, dock weights that looked to be decades old, and pull tabs from soda cans that have been banned since 1980.

The vintage debris is not as shocking as the dead bodies that have emerged from a shrinking Lake Mead. But the sightings are a sign of just how low Big Bear Lake has become during this record-setting megadrought.

With its complete dependence on precipitation, Big Bear Lake has long been what area writer and historian Mark Landis terms “a bellwether of drought conditions in Southern California.”

As of Friday, Aug. 26, the lake is 16.5 feet below its full mark, which puts it at less than 50% capacity, according to Mike Stephenson, head of the Big Bear Municipal Water District, which manages the lake.

The lake didn’t drop to that level even once from 1978, after current lake management practices started, through 2003. But with this drought, Big Bear’s water level has now slipped under the 50% mark three times in the past 18 years. And Stephenson said the transition was faster this time than ever before.

Since the lake’s modern dam was built, 110 years ago, Stephenson said Big Bear Lake has gone through a series of steady cycles. Every 10 years or so it fills to capacity from rain and snow melt-off, then drops five or 10 feet during drier years, then fills back up.

But the last time the lake was full was 2011. And with forecasters expecting another dry winter, and the water level potentially dropping even further next summer, Big Bear Lake soon might break its century-old pattern.

The West’s climate change-induced “new normal” of warmer, drier seasons doesn’t present the same dire impacts for Big Bear Lake that it does for Lake Mead and Lake Powell, where plummeting water levels threaten to disrupt hydroelectric power and supplies for millions of residents. Big Bear Lake doesn’t supply any drinking water, with an underground aquifer to fill that role, and there’s no power generated at the dam.

But a vast array of wildlife, including endangered fish and those famous bald eagles, depend on the lake’s ecosystem to survive. And advocates worry about how that wildlife is already being affected by climate-induced changes, such as a particularly intense algae bloom — fueled by warm, shallow waters — that recently turned the shoreline shades of bright green and blue earlier than it has in past summers.

Also, the livelihoods of thousands of Big Bear Valley residents are tied up in having a healthy lake. Each winter, area ski resorts use lake water to make the snow they need to stay in business between increasingly infrequent storms. And each summer, the town needs a healthy lake to lure “flatlanders” to stay in mountain hotels, eat at neighborhood restaurants and shop in local stores.

“The lake is probably the No. 1 resource in the valley,” said David Lawrence, general manager of the Big Bear Area Regional Wastewater Agency. “Basically, it runs our entire economy.”

That reality has water officials, business owners and community advocates who’ve chosen to live at 6,700 feet, an hour’s drive along curvy mountain roads from most major resources, doing what they do best: getting creative to safeguard the lifestyle and valley they love.

Lake’s uneven history

During the many centuries that the indigenous Yuhaaviatam people called this valley home, the area that’s now Big Bear Lake would naturally collect pools of rain and snow-pack melt. But most of that water would run off the west end of the valley and flow into the Santa Ana River below, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean in Huntington Beach.

In the late 1800s, developer Frank Brown led the charge to build a dam at the west end of the valley. The idea was to create a reservoir that could be released as needed to irrigate the citrus groves then booming at the bottom of the mountain. That single-arch dam was one of the first of its kind in the country when it was completed in 1884 and helped Brown earn the title of co-founder of Redlands.

Less than three decades later, in 1912, a new dam with multiple arches was built 20-feet higher and 200 feet to the west, creating the footprint of the lake that still exists today. But over the next half-century, as droughts occured while thousands of acre feet of water were being released to sustain farms below, Big Bear Lake at times would be nearly depleted. Historian Landis has an image in his photo collection, from 1956, that shows the lake as little more than two large ponds surrounded by hundreds of feet of dry shoreline. Still, through the lake’s wild west years, there was enough rain and snow to take it back to full each decade.

The Big Bear Municipal Water District started managing the lake in 1964. And in 1977, after some years of legal wrangling, a judgment came down that said lake water could only be released for use in the valley below if the lake is within four feet of full capacity. Since that time, fluctuations in lake levels have been almost fully dependent on Mother Nature.

For the next nearly three decades, the lake would drop by eight or maybe 10 feet in dry years, then fill up again in wet years. But during a dry spell in 2004 the lake dropped more than 16 feet for the first time in its modern history.

“We didn’t find any body parts,” Stephenson said, referencing the recent stories out of Lake Mead. “But we did find a couple of stolen vehicles that had been submerged for a long time.”

That year’s drop worried the local ski resorts, Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, which use lake water to make snow that keeps runs open between storms. In 2004, crews extended the pipes that feed the resorts several feet deeper into the lake, in case water levels continued to drop.

The cycle held, though, and the lake was full again in 2011. And that year marked the most recent time that Stephenson’s team released any lake water, letting 10,000 acre feet flow to the valley below.

In late 2018, the lake dropped to its modern low of 18 feet, six inches below capacity. That should have been the cycle’s low point. But, earlier this summer, Stephenson predicted the lake would get that low again by the end of this year.

Then, this month, the area was hit by surprise monsoonal rains.

“It really made a big difference,” Stephenson said. “Usually in August we lose almost a foot. But so far we’ve stayed flat. We didn’t come up, but more importantly, it didn’t go down.”

Given these historic “boom and bust cycles,” Big Bear Lake Councilman Randall Putz said he’s optimistic the lake again will return to full capacity. Still, he said, the severe dips do affect the entire valley.

Impacts seen across valley

One of two public boat launches has been out of commission all summer, with lake water about four feet from its eastern ramp. Private docks across the south shore are sitting on dirt. And massive homes built as lakefront properties are currently dozens or even hundreds of feet away from water.

And, with the level now down 16.5 feet, the lake is nearly five feet too low to send any water over to the adjacent Stanfield Marsh Wildlife and Waterfowl Preserve.

When Stephenson helped crews create that island in the marsh, in 2004, they thought the surrounding waters would be high enough at least 80% of the time to keep coyotes and people far enough away so that the waterfowl could nest in peace. But it’s been five years since there was water in the marsh and, last summer, Stephenson said they had to chase away a group of tourists who were playing flag football in the preserve.

No swimming, personal watercraft or pets have been recommended in the lake since Aug. 16, when state water regulators issued warnings about an intense algae bloom. Toxins in the algae can cause skin irritation and gastrointestinal problems for humans if ingested, with rare but potentially fatal issues in high concentrations, according to Marisa Van Dyke with the State Water Resources Control Board. The toxins also can kill dogs and livestock that drink the water and bird deaths have been reported in areas with persistent blooms.

This summer’s Big Bear Lake’s bloom started a bit earlier than it did last year, according to data from Van Dyke. And she said new test results she received Thursday show the lake’s algae bloom has worsened since the Aug. 16 notice went out.

With those blooms in mind, the booster club for North Shore Elementary had to rethink plans for Friday’s annual North Shore Rubber Ducky Fundraiser.

Typically, kids from the school walk over to the nearby lake one day in late summer and watch as numbered rubber ducks that families have paid to sponsor float to a finish line. Since the usual race area is where the algae bloom currently is most intense, the booster club got the OK to re-route the ducks over the water slide at Alpine Slide at Magic Mountain park, with the kids cheering them on via livestream from the school auditorium.

News reports and posted signs about algae blooms also seem to scare some tourists away, said Loren Hafen, the long-time owner of Holloway’s Marina and president of the tourism group Visit Big Bear. But otherwise, Hafen said, water levels at the lake have had much less impact on local businesses than the weather and the economy.

Brayden Windes, 20, of San Juan Capistrano has vacationed in Big Bear with his family since he was a boy. After snapping a photo of the lake on Thursday, near the dam, where bright green algae lined the shore, he said was sad to see the lake’s condition. But Windes said that wouldn’t keep him away. In fact, he was in town looking for a local cabin to buy.

Some businesses have had to move docks or kayak rentals a bit further out than in past summers. Hafen’s marina shares a bay with Pleasure Point Marina, and he said operations have grown cozier as the bay has narrowed. But he said there’s good cooperation, even between competing businesses, with plenty of customers to go around as some 8.3 million visitors come to Big Bear Valley each year.

“Even at 16 feet down, it’s a beautiful lake. The surface area is still really good,” Hafen said, pointing at a sailboat as it cruised by his marina.

It’s not this year’s drop that has Hafen a bit nervous.

“To be honest, I would say we’re worried about what the future holds.”

Hoping for best; planning for worst

Hafen still has all 300 of his marina’s slips in the water and he said revenue this year is on par with 2019, before the pandemic. But if the lake drops another five or seven feet, Hafen said he would start to lose income-generation slips. He might also have to move his entire ramp system out of the bay, to the main lakeshore.

“There is a critical point,” he said. “I’m not sure when we’re going to get to it. I hope we never do.”

There’s no number on paper that Big Bear Lake could hit that would prevent the ski resorts from being able to use the water for snowmaking, Stephenson said. Ski operations reduce the lake by about six inches each winter, though nearly half of that water returns to the lake when the snow melts in spring.

If ever forced to choose, Windes said he hopes officials protect the lake at the expense of the resorts, even though he loves to snowboard. “The lake is kind of the crown jewel,” he said. But winter sports are a huge revenue source for scores of local businesses, which could set the stage for some tough decisions if lake levels continue to drop while resorts rely on more man-made snow.

Stephenson said his team regularly ponders plans for what an even smaller lake might look like. They’ve discussed, for example, dredging a channel that would allow boats to get to public launch points.

At 20 feet down, Stephenson said he’d start to be really concerned.

“That’s when we would all have to put heads together to make sure we still have a lake,” he said.

But officials are hopeful that a proposed $56 million project might help keep things from getting to that point.

Replenish Big Bear is a plan to build a new facility at the Big Bear Area Regional Wastewater Agency’s plant. The plant would take 2 million gallons of treated wastewater currently pumped down to Lucerne Valley to water alfalfa fields and instead put it through additional purification systems until it’s cleaner than drinking water standards. Some of that water would be piped to the Stanfield preserve, where it would refill the dry marsh and help raise the lake by nearly five feet in low years, according to David Lawrence, general manager of the wastewater agency.

The rest of the water would go to a “spreading ground” near the ski resorts, where Lawrence said it will be allowed to percolate back into the earth and help recharge the valley’s all-important aquifer. Without this project, Lawrence said his team’s hydrologist predicts the aquifer would start to experience problems by 2042. With the project, he said they don’t expect to ever overdraft the aquifer.

The Department of the Interior announced last week that $8.3 million from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill would go toward this project. Lawrence said they’d already received another $7.7 million and expect to get up to $10 million more, including from the newly signed Inflation Reduction Act. That covers nearly half the estimated cost, which he hopes will help more residents, whose bills otherwise fund wastewater operations, embrace the work they’re doing despite the hefty price tag.

Because when it comes to bolstering both lake levels and drinking water supplies, he said, “There is no alternative to this project.”

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