A lot has changed for California’s reservoirs over the last five years.
In April 2017, then-Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order that declared California’s drought state of emergency over in most counties (Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne counties were initially excluded).
The emergency order had been in place since 2014 following several years of historic drought conditions. The drought and the emergency order changed the way California viewed its scarce water resources and led to statewide efforts to revamp and revitalize the way it used the precious commodity.
Counties across the state developed their own plans to reduce water usage and many California residents did their part to make water conservation a part of every day life.
Much of those efforts were successful which led to the order being lifted. For a brief period in time, Californians and local municipalities were free to use and consume water as they saw fit.
But in the years since Brown lifted the order, the state’s reservoirs appear to be trending back in the same direction, approaching the same levels that led to the initial drought emergency declaration.
In 2021, Brown’s successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, declared his own drought emergency following the second driest year on record and historically low levels at the state’s reservoirs.
Currently, all of California (except for a tiny little corner) is experiencing some sort of drought, with most of the state under moderate to severe conditions.
Many of California’s reservoirs are significantly below their historic levels for this time of year, some even as low as they were back in 2014 when Brown issued his drought emergency declaration.
Satellite imaging from Google Earth shows the conditions of the state’s reservoirs now versus where they were about five years ago.
Shasta Lake in Shasta County is the largest of the state’s reservoirs.
Images from 2017 and 2022 show a stark difference between shorelines as the lake’s water receded, revealing more land that was previously covered by water.
Shasta is currently at 31% capacity, down from its historical capacity of 57% this time of year.
Storage level graphs from the California Department of Water Resources show today’s water level hovering above 2014’s historically low levels.
The second-largest reservoir in California is in the midst of a dry spell. As of Nov. 14, Oroville is at 29% capacity, exactly half of the historic average of 58%.
At 1,010,985 acre-feet, Lake Oroville is just a hair higher than it was in 2014 when the declaration order was issued. An acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons.
Satellite images from 2017 when the declaration was lifted show significantly smaller shorelines and an island that doesn’t exist in 2022.
Both Shasta and Oroville are considered to be at “critically low” levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Lake McClure/Don Pedro Reservoir
Lake McClure in Mariposa County is the second-driest reservoir in the state. It’s currently at 18% of capacity, which is significantly lower than its historical average for this time of year of 42%.
Even with the low capacity, it’s still about twice as high as it was in 2014.
Nearby Don Pedro Reservoir in Tuolumne County is currently at 50% capacity, below its historical average of 75% capacity.
As of November, Don Pedro is currently about 200,000 acre-feet above its capacity in 2014.
Unfortunately, due to limitations with Google Earth, the most recent images available for the two reservoirs is from June 2021, but there is still a noticeable difference from then to 2017 when Brown’s emergency declaration was lifted.
Perhaps no satellite images offer a more dramatic glimpse into the changes at California’s reservoirs like Trinity Lake.
Massive swaths of land once covered by water in 2017 are now dry as a bone and some areas even appear to have walkable paths between the two sides.
The reservoir in the northwest portion of California currently sits at 22% capacity, a little more than half of its historical capacity for this time of year (38%).
The reservoir is actually lower today than it was in 2014, according to Water Resources historical graphs.
It’s not all bad news for California’s reservoirs, however.
Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County is currently at 32% capacity, below its historical capacity of 51%.
But at one point, in the months leading up to the 2017 emergency declaration being lifted, the reservoir that serves as the main water source for the city of Santa Barbara was at less than 10% capacity.
Images from Google Earth show the return of an island and the loss of a beach that appeared when the water levels dipped. The latest available images from Google Earth are from 2021 and show a higher level than what is accurate today, but it does put the historical drought conditions from the 2010s into perspective.
Pine Flat Reservoir in Fresno County, which has the lowest capacity of the state’s reservoirs at only 16%, is still above the historic lows of 2014-15. Google Earth does not have any satellite images of the entire lake from the previous two years.