Lakes and rivers have always been a primary focus for outdoor recreation activities. A few decades ago, recreation occurred incidentally at natural water bodies, streams, and rivers. The abundance of potential recreation sites limited the need for careful planning of recreation facility development. The situation began to change after World War II, when a rapidly growing population that was increasingly affluent sought the great outdoors to escape the congestion of growing urban areas.
Water-based recreation has become an integral part of meeting society's recreational needs. Recreation at reservoirs, natural lakes, and streams must be managed to prevent overuse and degradation. Public water supply projects, such as the State Water Project, have helped to provide additional recreational opportunities for Californians. In some cases, reservoir releases can contribute to downstream recreation benefits by improving fisheries or by creating white-water rafting opportunities that would not be possible in the absence of reservoir regulation. Often, however, there are conflicting values and needs for the same river system.
This chapter describes water-based recreation and State recreation facilities constructed specifically to enhance such recreation and water use for recreation. It also discusses some of the inherent conflicts between the natural setting and the built environment relating to water-based recreation.
Although California is not usually associated with the phrase "land of 10,000 lakes," there are thousands of lakes and reservoirs within the State's borders. Many of these lakes occur naturally, but over 1,400 are created by artificial impoundments. While reservoirs are often synonymous with recreational opportunity, diverse recreational opportunities are usually incidental to, and compete with, a reservoir's primary purposes. Nevertheless, recreation planning and development is usually an element of public water development design. At State Water Project reservoirs, recreation is always considered along with other project purposes, as required by the Davis-Dolwig Act.
Swimming, fishing, and boating are popular activities at California's reservoirs. Recreation facilities such as beaches, boat ramps, docks, trails, restrooms, and access roads add to the quality and safety of the recreation experience. Often, picnic and camping facilities are also developed to meet public demand. The way reservoir water levels are managed and operated directly affects the quality and economic value of recreational and other contingent activities.
Reservoir operations for water supply are usually adequate to support established recreation activities, particularly when surface runoff from precipitation is near normal. Changes in operations, because of drought or demand exceeding supply, have reduced both available recreational opportunities and per capita benefits and will continue to do so. In general, reservoir recreation benefits decrease as receding water levels reduce water surface areas, make boat ramps less accessible, and leave recreation facilities farther from shorelines. On the other hand, decreased recreation benefits at drawn-down reservoirs may be offset to some extent by increases in stream recreation benefits.
The California Fish and Game Code requires maintenance of stream habitat below dams, and in some cases, even artificially created instream resources, but recently the requirements for sensitive species preservation have become more critical. For example, increased releases from Shasta Reservoir to control temperature will benefit salmon habitat on the Sacramento River, but also will reduce recreational opportunities within the Shasta Lake area. On the other hand, minimum storage recommendations at Shasta, invoked for sensitive species protection, also could ultimately benefit recreation in the river downstream of Shasta Dam. A table summarizing minimum instream flow requirements at selected sites is presented in Chapter 8, Environmental Water Use (Table 8-3).
Hydroelectric generating facilities can have varying impacts on both reservoir and river recreation depending on whether the operation is direct release or pumped storage and whether releases are constant or subject to peaking. As with water supply releases, increased stream flows from power generation provide recreation benefits that to some degree offset the effects of diminished reservoir storage.
A pumped storage operation can create additional recreation opportunities at forebay and afterbay reservoirs if water levels do not fluctuate too greatly on a daily basis. As the recent drought reduced the attractiveness of large reservoirs like Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir, Thermalito Afterbay and O'Neill Forebay, respectively, supported increased recreation use; this raised the need to add temporary facilities to augment facilities previously adequate at these sites.
Shifts in use, as those described above, can create potential water quality problems. Water quality and human health and safety can be jeopardized if recreation becomes too intense at any one site. Algal blooms and high coliform counts are not uncommon when swimming areas become overcrowded. Pollution by petroleum products and other chemicals is inevitable when motorized equipment, such as boats and jet skis, operate on the water. The risk of worsening water quality underscores the importance of proper recreation planning as outdoor recreation continues to grow in popularity and competition for existing water supplies intensifies.
Riverine environments can offer types of recreation not available from the large water surface impoundments, although in many cases similar recreation facilities are developed to meet public demand. In addition to fishing and swimming, some of the recreation opportunities associated with rivers and streams are white-water sports such as rafting, kayaking, and canoeing. Also, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta provides exceptional recreational opportunities for houseboating as well as striped bass, catfish, and sturgeon fishing, among others. Water needs for these activities are incidental to environmental water use and are included in Chapter 8.
Many streams are unimpaired by water development facilities, such as many of those listed under the federal or State Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts. These streams offer seasonal recreational opportunities in natural settings. (For a summary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts, see Chapter 2.) Most of the wild and scenic rivers are in northern California and include all or parts of the Smith, Trinity, Klamath, Van Duzen, Eel, Feather, American, and Tuolumne rivers. Maps showing regional wild and scenic rivers are in Volume II.
Other streams, such as those controlled by reservoir releases, offer opportunities to enhance downstream flows that can benefit recreation values. Streams that would naturally run only intermittently, for example, can have year-round flows following reservoir construction and operation. This kind of conversion can develop new fisheries, add to recreational-area attractiveness, and enhance wildlife habitat. Regulation of larger streams and rivers can support white-water sports for a longer season or increase the diversity of available activities.
In some cases a hydropower development can completely change river recreation benefits. For example, peak releases from the North Fork Stanislaus River project greatly increased white-water rafting but reduced opportunities for swimming in the summer. Local agencies are continuing to study the impacts and benefits of this conversion.
The use and economic benefits provided by river recreation can be substantial, although difficult to estimate because such use occurs over diffuse areas and is often not under the jurisdiction of one area or operator. Table 9-1 lists minimum flow levels for rafting at 12 major California rivers popular with rafters and kayakers. Rafting and boating conditions forecast for these and other popular California rivers are published each spring in the DWR pamphlet Water Supply Outlook for Boaters, although few data are available on recreation use over long reaches of these waters. Estimated rafting use on these rivers was compiled in a 1983 report by the Planning and Conservation League. It must be emphasized that optimum flows ordinarily occur only for a short period during a year, and popular areas with prolonged periods suitable for rafting often result from coordination with release schedules for hydroelectric generation from major dams and reservoirs.
Many designated wildlife refuges in California owe their existence to imported water which supports large populations of migratory waterfowl. Seasonal wetland habitat at such refuges is integral to maintenance of waterfowl populations along the Pacific Flyway. Further discussion of water at wildlife refuges can be found in Chapter 8. Historically, recreation values associated with such wildlife have focused primarily on hunting. More recently, DFG has cited birding (bird watching) as the fastest-growing recreation activity in the nation.
In 1988, the California Wildlands Program became law. Broadly supported and lauded by many, the program directed DFG to provide and charge for nonconsumptive refuge-based recreation. Although the program has not met projected targets for pass sales, visitation at refuges is significant. Prior to the program's inception, DFG records for its larger wildlife areas indicated that nonconsumptive use by individuals and groups averaged more than 260,000 visitor days annually, 15 percent higher than use attributed to hunters and anglers. In 1993 DFG, in cooperation with USBR, monitored visitation and recreation at several of its management areas in order to collect more accurate and recent visitor data.
Recreation planning is a relatively new component of water project development. In the past, recreation facilities were often added as afterthoughts to existing projects as the public demand increased. Many water planning and development agencies were among the first to recommend that recreation be treated as a water project purpose along with flood control, urban water supply, irrigation, hydroelectric generation, and other traditional purposes in the planning and financing of new projects. Today's water supply management and development must balance conflicting needs and values for environmental, recreational, and other water supply benefits.
Conflicts which arise between maintaining optimum recreational opportunities through minimally fluctuating reservoirs versus stream flows for healthy fisheries, or in some cases even greater flows for rafting, must be evaluated. Both the State and federal legislative bodies enacted laws requiring that recreation be a part of their respective water projects, and today recreation planning is an important part of any Environmental Impact Report or Statement.
The Davis-Dolwig Act was passed by the State Legislature in 1961. It is the primary statement of State policy concerning recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement at State-constructed water facilities. The act sets fundamental policies and establishes the responsibilities of the State departments that participate in the program.
The Davis-Dolwig Act declares that recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement are among the purposes of State water projects. It specifies that costs incurred for these purposes shall not be included in the prices, rates, and charges for water and power to urban and agricultural users. It also provides for DWR to allocate to recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement a portion of the costs of any facility of the SWP. Under Davis-Dolwig, acquiring real property for recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement must be planned and initiated concurrently with and as part of the land acquisition program for other project purposes. Reimbursement for land acquisition has in the past been from State oil and gas revenues, while facilities have been constructed with general fund and bond financing.
Three State departments are assigned specific responsibilities under the act. DWR is responsible for planning recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement and preservation measures in connection with State-constructed water projects. DWR is also responsible for acquiring any needed lands. The Department of Parks and Recreation is responsible for design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the actual recreation features at these sites. DPR must consider arrangements in which federal or local agencies could become participants, if appropriate. The Department of Fish and Game is responsible for managing the fish and wildlife resources at State water projects. A later amendment to the act authorized the Wildlife Conservation Board to design and construct fishing access sites along SWP aqueducts.
The Federal Water Project Recreation Act, comparable to the Davis-Dolwig Act, was enacted in 1965 and affects federal water development projects. It requires those federal agencies approving water projects to include recreation development, including provisions for cost and benefit allocation, as a condition of issuing permits. Consideration of recreational development must be made in conjunction with any navigation, flood control, reclamation, hydroelectric, or multi-purpose water resource project. For example, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to operate a hydroelectric facility usually includes an obligation to construct specific recreation facilities to provide for anticipated demand.
Periodic relicensing and FERC review can result in revised project operation and impacts on fishing, white-water boating, and other established activities and facilities. The issues of relicensing typically focus on water quality and environmental water needs; however, it is important to recognize the secondary effects of revised operation on recreation.
It should be noted that terms of Federal Power Act licenses supersede state regulation of projects in most cases. There have been instances where holders of FPA licenses have claimed exemption from state safety of dams requirements, minimum streamflow requirements, state Wild and Scenic River designation, and condemnation of easements and lands for projects in state parks; see Chapter 2.
DPR statistics show a steady increase in visits to State park and recreation areas. Visitation has grown at a rate even faster than that of California's population. Increased leisure time, economical transportation, and changing demographics contribute to the demand for recreational facilities. The best estimates are that over 60 million visits are made to State park system units each year, indicating growth of roughly 15 percent per year throughout most of the 1980s; however, this growth rate has slowed somewhat in the last few years.
Although increased recreation area fees may be partly to blame, and the latest recession may have curbed discretionary income expenditures for recreation, the recent six-year drought is commonly cited as the primary reason that the trend of increased recreational use has diminished at many reservoirs. San Luis Reservoir was subject to severe drawdown during the drought, although O'Neill Forebay was maintained relatively full, and the level of Los Banos Reservoir only dropped a few feet.
Perhaps another index of drought impacts to water-based recreation is evidenced by declining California sport fishing license sales. Sales were down over a quarter-million (13 percent) during the recent drought. Although a pre-existing trend of decline may be attributable to changing demographics, and large price increases for licenses, there can be little argument that drought impacted outdoor recreation.
Recreational activity and resources generally do not consume significant amounts of water, no more than 3 percent of the statewide total. Although some water developments were designed and constructed primarily to provide recreation, most recreational facility developments are on streams, lakes, or reservoirs operated for other purposes. In some cases, minimum reservoir releases may be imposed on the latter to maintain recreation activities below a dam, or the drawdown of a reservoir may be limited during the recreational season. Consumptive use occurs when water allocated specifically for recreation with no other benefit is not recaptured downstream or is evaporated from a larger-than-normal water surface area. The amount of water consumed through reservoir operations is usually very small compared to other consumptive uses; reservoir operations also benefit fish, wildlife, and other environmental values.
Water for drinking and sanitation is also a factor at every recreation site. Landscaping adds appreciably to overall water use at these sites; however, consumption associated with recreational development is still exceedingly small when compared to urban, agricultural, and other uses.
A planning standard for intensely used recreation areas is 50 gallons of water per person per day. Many dispersed day-use activities consume less than 10 gallons of water per visitor day. DPR reports that per capita daily visitor use averages 10 to 14 gallons throughout the diverse State Park System. Recreation facilities provided by federal, State, and local governments support about 1 billion recreation days in California per year. Therefore, using the DPR average and the average recreation day use, annual recreational-related water consumption at public facilities is probably less than 50,000 acre-feet. In 1978, the California State Park System (over 200 park units) used approximately 750 million gallons (550 million for domestic uses, and 200 million gallons for irrigation purposes). Distributed statewide, this small amount of water can be considered part of water developed for other uses (urban recreation, fish and wildlife enhancement, etc.). The water used by private recreation developments is typically included in urban water needs.
The recent drought events have encouraged accelerated installation of low-flow shower heads, low-flow toilets, and other water-saving devices throughout the State park system and at many other recreation areas. Since 1978 DPR has endeavored to implement water-saving measures throughout the State park system. These measures include: (1) restricted hours of shower use; (2) flow restrictors for showers; (3) spring-loaded or self-closing faucets; (4) low-volume flush toilets; (5) inserts in toilet tanks to reduce use of water; (6) replacing water-using restrooms with chemical toilets; (7) increased efficiency of all water systems by correcting leaks and improving intake structures and storage facilities; (8) providing information to park visitors on water shortages; (9) stressing water conservation in interpretive programs; and (10) reduced watering for landscaped areas. Combined, all of these measures have resulted in about a 30-percent reduction in water use per State park visitor since 1978.
The recreation opportunities provided by reservoirs generate enormous benefits to California's economy. In 1985, an estimated $500 million was spent on water-related activities in the Delta and at major reservoirs. The estimated 7 million visitors to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta generated an estimated $125 million; the 6.6 million visitors to the 12 SWP reservoirs and the California Aqueduct brought in an estimated $170 million; and benefits of the 11.6 million visitors to 10 of the 22 CVP reservoirs totaled $208 million. In addition to the half-billion dollars detailed above, a similar amount was probably spent at the many local and regional reservoirs and streams, statewide.
The kinds of recreational facilities and activities found at any developed water recreation site are usually similar, regardless of whether the site was developed by a local, federal, or State agency. Given this similarity, this report focuses on the water recreation at SWP facilities to give the reader an in-depth look at water-based recreation connected with water supply development.
One of the project purposes of the SWP is recreation, which takes several forms at various facilities. Recreation at SWP facilities includes camping, boating, fishing, swimming, bicycling, and other activities. Recreation facilities were incorporated into SWP facilities from the upper Feather River reservoirs in Plumas County to Lake Perris in Riverside County. More than 6 million recreation days of use were generated by SWP facilities during 1990.
As designed, the SWP includes the physical and operational capacity to deliver up to 45,500 acre-feet of water annually for recreation uses. About half of this amount was developed specifically for recreation-related uses. SWP water allocation exclusively for recreational use will be done on a case-by-case basis for future projects and for operational revisions.
State Water Project Reservoirs. SWP recreation facilities, from north to south, are at Antelope Lake, Lake Davis, Frenchman Lake, Lake Oroville, Lake Del Valle, Bethany Reservoir, San Luis Reservoir, O'Neill Forebay, Los Banos Reservoir, Pyramid Lake, Castaic Lake, Silverwood Lake, and Lake Perris. A brief description of each area follows. Estimated current annual and cumulative attendance at each facility, from facility construction through 1990, is presented in Table 9-2.
Antelope Lake and Dam are in Plumas National Forest on Upper Indian Creek, tributary to the North Fork Feather River. The reservoir is approximately 43 miles from Quincy and was created in 1964 to help meet the increasing demand for water-oriented recreation, improve fishing in Indian Creek, and assure a constant, year-round flow of water below the dam. Antelope Lake Recreation Area is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. Recreational opportunities include: camping, fishing, picnicking, water-skiing, swimming, boating, hunting, hiking, and winter sports such as snowmobiling. Total visitor use between 1965 and 1990 was 3,617,000.
Lake Davis and Grizzly Valley Dam are in the Plumas National Forest on Big Grizzly Creek. The lake is 8 miles north of Portola, on a tributary of the Middle Fork Feather River. Lake Davis was created in 1967 to provide recreation, to improve fish habitat in Big Grizzly Creek, and to contribute to domestic water supply. Lake Davis recreation facilities are operated by the U.S. Forest Service and offer camping, fishing, picnicking, boating, hunting, hiking, and winter sports such as cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Total visitor use between 1968 and 1990 was 6,836,000.
Frenchman Lake and Dam also are within the Plumas National Forest on Little Last Chance Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork Feather River. The lake is about 30 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada and 15 miles northeast of Portola. Frenchman Lake was created in 1961 to provide recreation and develop irrigation water for Sierra Valley. Frenchman Lake Recreation Area is operated by the U.S. Forest Service and offers camping, fishing, picnicking, water-skiing, swimming, boating, hunting, hiking, and winter sports such as cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Total visitor use between 1962 and 1990 was 7,051,000.
Lake Oroville and Oroville Dam are in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada above the Central Valley. The dam is 1 mile downstream of the confluence of the Feather River's three major tributaries. Lake Oroville is 5 miles east of Oroville and about 75 miles north of Sacramento. Completed in 1967, Lake Oroville is part of a multipurpose project that includes water storage, power generation, flood control, recreation, and fish and wildlife enhancement. Lake Oroville State Recreation Area is operated by DPR and offers camping, picnicking, horseback riding, hiking, sail and power boating, water skiing, fishing, swimming, and boat-in camping. Limited waterfowl hunting is permitted only on Thermalito Afterbay. Total visitor use between 1968 and 1990 was 14,377,000. This figure includes visitation at Oroville Wildlife Area beginning in 1980.
Lake Del Valle and Del Valle Dam are located in Arroyo Del Valle, just south of Livermore Valley, about 11 miles from Livermore. Lake Del Valle was created in 1968 to provide recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement, flood control for Alameda Creek, and regulatory storage for the South Bay Aqueduct. Lake Del Valle facilities are operated by East Bay Regional Park District and offer camping, picnicking, horseback riding, swimming, hiking, wind surfing, boating, and fishing. Total visitor use between 1970 and 1990 was 6,793,000.
Bethany Reservoir is located 11/2 miles down the California Aqueduct from Harvey O. Banks Delta Pumping Plant, about 10 miles northwest of Tracy, in Alameda County. Bethany Reservoir was completed in 1967, and serves as a forebay for South Bay Pumping Plant and a conveyance facility in this reach of the California Aqueduct. Bethany Reservoir facilities are operated by DPR and offer picnicking, fishing, boating, wind-surfing, hiking, and bicycling. Total visitor use between 1978 and 1990 was 586,000.
San Luis Reservoir and Dam are located on San Luis Creek in the foothills on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in Merced County, 12 miles west of the city of Los Banos. San Luis Reservoir is part of the San Luis Joint-Use Facilities, which serve SWP and the federal CVP. It was completed in 1967 and provides storage for water diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for later delivery to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area is operated by DPR. There are extensive recreational developments and three wildlife areas around the reservoir and at O'Neill Forebay which offer camping, picnicking, sail and power boating, water-skiing, wind surfing, fishing, swimming, hiking, bicycling, and waterfowl hunting. Total visitor use of San Luis Reservoir and O'Neill Forebay from 1967 through 1990 was 11,785,000.
Los Banos Reservoir and Detention Dam are on Los Banos Creek, about 7 miles southwest of the City of Los Banos. The dam provides flood protection for San Luis Canal, Delta-Mendota Canal, City of Los Banos, and other downstream developments. Los Banos Reservoir offers camping, picnicking, fishing, swimming, and hiking. Total visitor use of Los Banos Reservoir from 1973 to 1990 was 1,119,000.
Pyramid Lake and Dam are within the Angeles and Los Padres National Forests, on Piru Creek about 14 miles north of the town of Castaic. Pyramid was completed in 1973 and is a multipurpose facility that provides regulatory storage for Castaic Power Plant, normal regulatory storage for water deliveries from the SWP's West Branch, emergency storage in the event of a shut-down of the SWP to the north, recreational opportunities, and incidental flood protection. Pyramid Lake facilities are operated by the U.S. Forest Service and offer camping, picnicking, boating, water-skiing, fishing, and swimming. Total visitor use from 1974 to 1990 was 4,950,000.
Castaic Lake and Dam are at the confluence of Castaic Creek and Elizabeth Lake Canyon Creek, 45 highway miles northwest of Los Angeles and about 2 miles north of the community of Castaic. Castaic was completed in 1972 to act as a regulatory storage facility for water deliveries, to provide emergency storage, and to furnish recreational development and fish and wildlife enhancement. Castaic Lagoon, downstream of the dam, provides a recreation pool with a constant water surface elevation of 1,134 feet and also functions as a recharge basin for the downstream ground water basin. The lagoon provides an additional 3 miles of shoreline and 197 surface acres. Castaic Lake State Recreation Area is operated by Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation and offers fishing, boating, water-skiing, sailing, picnicking, and swimming. Total visitor use from 1972 to 1990 was 18,821,000.
Silverwood Lake and Cedar Springs Dam are within San Bernardino National Forest, on the West Fork Mojave River, about 30 highway miles north of the city of San Bernardino. It is a multipurpose project that was completed in 1971, and is a regulating facility and water source for agencies serving the surrounding mountain and desert areas. There are 2,400 acres of recreation land surrounding Silverwood Lake. The Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area is operated by DPR and offers camping, picnicking, boating, water-skiing, fishing, swimming, bicycling, and hiking. Total visitor use from 1972 to 1990 was 10,150,000.
Lake Perris and Perris Dam, the terminal storage facility of the SWP, are in northwestern Riverside County, about 13 miles southeast of the city of Riverside and 5 miles northeast of the town of Perris. The reservoir was completed in 1974 and is a multipurpose facility providing water supply, recreation, and fish and wildlife enhancement. Lake Perris State Recreation Area is operated by DPR and offers camping, picnicking, horseback riding, sail and power boating, water-skiing, fishing, swimming, hiking, bicycling, hunting, and rock climbing. A marina and water slide are operated by a concessionaire. Total visitor use from 1974 to 1990 was 23,354,000.
Future SWP recreational facilities are tied closely to future projects. The Los Banos Grandes Facilities could provide an estimated 465,000 recreation days at the Los Banos Grandes Reservoir, if constructed.
California Aqueduct Recreation. DWR's focus in developing recreation along the California Aqueduct includes bicycling, fishing, and aqueduct safety. The California Aqueduct Bikeway is on the paved service roads along the canal facilities of the SWP. Two sections of bikeway have been developed, one in the San Joaquin Valley and the other in Southern California.
The San Joaquin Valley section extends 67 miles down the west side of the valley, from Bethany Reservoir (west of Tracy) to the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area (west of Los Banos). This section of the bikeway has been designated a National Recreation Trail by the Secretary of the Interior.
The Southern California section extends 107 miles through the Antelope Valley, from Quail Lake to a point 2 miles north of Silverwood Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest. The Southern California section is closed at this time because of aqueduct enlargement construction. Several reaches will be reopened after all work on the enlargement is completed and some safety improvements have been made.
Fishing is permitted in canal reaches along nearly 400 miles of the California Aqueduct, beginning at Bethany Reservoir (west of Tracy) and extending to just north of Silverwood Lake. In addition, 17 fishing access sites have parking and toilet facilities. Fish from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have spread throughout the aqueduct system. Many types of fish can be caught, depending on the area. Striped bass and catfish are caught throughout the system, and starry flounder have been caught in the reach between Bethany Reservoir and O'Neill Forebay. Visits at the fishing access sites between 1971 and 1990 totaled 469,000, and total walk-in fishing between 1973 and 1990 was 893,000.
DWR has an active aqueduct safety program. Water contact is not allowed under any circumstances because without help it is almost impossible to climb out, except by using the emergency safety ladders. Brochures such as Safety Along the State Water Project and California Aqueduct Fishing Safety are published in several languages. DWR personnel also visit local communities near the aqueduct and conduct safety seminars for schools and community groups.
Droughts have obvious impacts on water-oriented recreation, particularly if they are extended, like the 1987-92 drought in California. During this drought, the runoff of major California rivers averaged about 50 percent of normal and the carryover (September 30) storage in 155 major California reservoirs averaged about two-thirds of normal. So, major reservoirs were much less full than usual, and many reservoirs did not fill each spring as they normally do. This was also true of large natural lakes in California, such as Lake Tahoe, which was below its natural outlet for more than two years; Goose Lake, which almost dried up; and lower levels in Eagle Lake and Clear Lake.
The lower lake levels during droughts have had a variety of impacts on recreation. These impacts at lakes and reservoirs included the water surface receding far from developed recreation facilities such as campgrounds, picnic areas, and swimming beaches; boat ramps and swimming areas becoming unusable because they were no longer covered by water; boating and water skiing being reduced by declining surface area; and aesthetic values being generally reduced. Recreation attendance drops substantially when water levels drop well below major recreation facilities and boat ramps. During the 1976-77 drought, total attendance at State and federal reservoirs in California was reduced about 30 percent, with some reservoirs experiencing declines of as much as 80 percent, while attendance at a few stable reservoirs actually increased. A similar pattern developed during the 1987-92 drought although there were even fewer stable reservoirs.
Several years of low lake levels have sharpened the desire of many recreation area operators, and water agencies, to store as much water as possible. The extremes in annual precipitation within the last decade have accentuated the consequences of insufficient flood control capacity, as well as the impacts on recreation facilities when spring runoff does not materialize. The floods of 1983 and 1986 are still relatively recent, but the importance of flood control can be too easily dismissed following these several years of drought. It is important to emphasize that a prudent capacity reserve for flood control throughout the winter and spring months is vital. Property damage and liability resulting from flood mismanagement would have the potential to exceed the economic impact of less storage and reduced water deliveries. As with other project purposes, flood control releases must be accepted as a necessary trade-off against maximizing storage for recreation benefits.
White-water boating, river floating, and rafting are popular recreation activities in California. Low river levels reduce the length of the boating season and change the types of craft that can be used. Commercial outfitters experience considerable financial loss in years with greatly reduced flow levels. On the other hand, many popular boating runs are on streams sustained by water releases from reservoirs.
Even during normal water years, the cold water fraction of reservoir storage is especially valuable for the maintenance of downstream fisheries. If the cold water is depleted, subsequent warm water releases can be lethal to sensitive species. Storage of sufficient cold water to meet downstream environmental needs throughout the summer and fall may limit flows available earlier in the year for rafting and other activities. Consideration of the importance of cold water storage is an important part of water allocation even though there may be a substantial volume of warm water available.
Drought has an enormous impact on the winter sports industry. During recent years some northern California ski resorts never opened and many others opened only for short periods of time. During the 1976-77 drought, attendance at ski resorts fell by nearly 50 percent from pre-drought levels. The impact of reduced attendance also extends to businesses that manufacture, sell, or rent winter sports equipment. The economic loss to the industry was estimated at $50 million over the two years of drought during 1976-77. No accurate figures are available to describe the impact of the 1987-92 drought on winter sports. However, a similar pattern of shortened seasons and reduced attendance, even though many areas installed artificial snow-making equipment, continued over a longer period of time and the total economic impact was very large, probably several hundred million dollars.
Most major California ski resorts employ artificial snow-making equipment to
augment the local snowpack during the early part of the season, and during
the drought. Snow-making machinery can consume copious quantities of water
considering that resorts typically operate several units at a time and for
many hours a day (assuming sufficiently low temperature). For example, at Mt.
Reba, an average-sized resort, about a million gallons of water (3 acre-feet)
will be consumed during a 14-hour overnight period. Over a season, a typical
resort may apply several hundred acre-feet per year for snow-making during
drought periods. Much of this water is not actually consumed since it normally
creates runoff and is available for future consumption in the spring.
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