Lake Lowdown: Drought Threatens Boating

For many in Northern California, rising temperatures means packing a cooler full of light beer, peeling off the boat cover, and cranking Bad Company as you descend the ramp. Unfortunately, adventures on the water may be harder to enjoy this summer due to the state’s ongoing drought conditions. Folsom Lake, near Coloma, typically draws a hefty portion of the Sacramento-area boating crowd. This year the lake is more like a mud pit, and officials have imposed  “no wake” speed restrictions. To avoid this, crowds have been spilling into neighboring counties. If you’re planning on boating near Grass Valley and Nevada City this summer, here is what to expect.

Low water level at Upper Scotts Flat Lake

Scotts Flat

The closest lake to Nevada City, Upper Scotts Flat is a two-mile-long reservoir encircled by sandy beaches and popular year-round campgrounds. Operated by the Nevada Irrigation District (NID), Scott’s Flat allows motorized boats (but not jet skis), fishing, as well as paddle boards and kayaks. You can typically rent the latter two from a trailer parked on site. 

The lake also serves as an important water supply for NID’s customers, who include  bigger farms and orchards in Nevada, Placer, and Yuba Counties. As those customers order more water, the water level is drawn down, much to the despair of recreational lake-goers. The hotter the year, the more water they order.

“The water stored in the lake provides recreation to the community as a side benefit,” says NID Public Information Officer, Tomi Riley. “Scotts Flat typically recedes over the course of the summer as customer demands are greatest. Due to a lack of precipitation, the lake did not fill before consumptive demands began drawing water from the reservoir.” 

So, expect a shrinking Scotts Flat experience this summer. NID estimates that by August or September, the lake will be too low for boat launches.

Rollins Lake

Rollins Lake

Another NID-operated reservoir located near Colfax, Rollins is composed of two long and narrow fingers of water surrounded by red clay earth and forest. You can fish, camp and launch your boat from four different marinas. Weekdays often feel calm and peaceful, but because of its proximity to Highway 80, weekends can get crowded. This has intensified with the situation at Folsom Lake. For multiple consecutive weekends in May, the parking lot at Rollins’ Long Ravine Marina was so full, the boat launch closed at 10:30 a.m. NID officials are hoping that boat ramps will stay open all summer at Rollins, but recommend visitors keep an eye on their website in case that changes. Get there early in any case, and avoid weekends if possible.

Bullards Bar

With its gemlike turquoise water and long expanse (16 miles), New Bullards Bar Reservoir is popular with water skiers and houseboaters alike. It is also known for having warmer water, and a quirky (canceled last year) August scavenger hunt in which people dress in costumes and decorate their boats like pirate ships. 

The water level at Bullards Bar is currently 65 feet lower than this time last year. According to Yuba Water Agency Public Information Specialist Alex Boesch, the water-year runoff into the reservoir to date has been just 25 percent of normal and is the lowest seen since the 1977 drought. By the end of September, the reservoir will most likely be 85 feet lower than it was the same time last year.

Although there have been fewer visitors this year to the Emerald Cove Marina at Bullards than this time last year, employees there have been receiving many inquiries about the lake, with houseboat reservations looking strong for the summer.

Luckily, there’s room to spread out. “We throw down a buoy in a cove to mark our space, then go out skiing for the day,” says Smartsville resident Jordan McKay. With 55 miles of shoreline, it’s easier to stake your claim.

Englebright Lake

Englebright is a good alternative to Bullards, and closer to town. It’s a relatively small lake (1.2 square miles) with chillier water, located in a steep canyon in Yuba County off Highway 20. There are numerous boat-in camp spots, making for a potentially secluded evening. The lake is mainly popular with houseboats, but the narrow walls of the canyon protect the water from wind, making for a nice, glassy water skiing surface. It fills up fast on the weekends. Although it, too, is a reservoir, Englebright’s levels are expected to remain relatively stable this summer, according to the Army Corps of Engineers which owns and operates the lake. At least that’s one small spot of good news.

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