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Drought Conditions Are Sucking The Fun Out of Northwest Reservoirs


The marina at Howard Prairie Lake is high and dry.

The marina at Howard Prairie Lake is high and dry.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

The marina at Howard Prairie Lake is high and dry.  The docks tilt awkwardly this way and that, stranded on the uneven lake bottom.

“Normally, on a year when the lake is full, we’d most likely have 15 to 16 feet of water above our heads.  So, yeah, it’s a little pasture right now,” says Steve Lambert, Program Manager of Jackson County Parks.

Lambert stands on the firm, black lake bed beside the docks.  Wildflowers bloom at his feet and fresh deer tracks circle where sailboats and fishing boats should be moored.

Jackson County operates the marina, boat ramps, restaurant and store on the lake.  But just a couple days before Memorial Day weekend, the place is nearly deserted.

“With the marina, brings in $67-$70,000 annually, and when you have a marina that’s not usable, that’s a direct loss of that revenue that you don’t see the next year,” Lambert says.

For this time of year, many lakes are the lowest they’ve been in 30 years.  This is especially true at some of the most popular recreation lakes.

But finding a place to tie up boats may be the least of the problems for recreational anglers and boaters.  Just accessing the water for fishing on many lakes and rivers is already a problem, even this early in the season.

Anglers can’t get to the fish, and wildlife officials are having trouble stocking the lakes to begin with. 

Jackson County will not be able to rent out boats this summer because of low water levels.  That's a loss of about $50,000 in revenue.

Jackson County will not be able to rent out boats this summer because of low water levels.  That's a loss of about $50,000 in revenue.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

“As water levels drop below the end of the boat ramp, you can’t get the truck close to the water very easily.  You have to add lots of piping to get the fish down to the water, or do some creative things,” says says Tim Walters with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.  “I’ve even heard of people using tarps and digging trenches to get the fish down to the water.”

And even when stocking is possible, wildlife officials say the low water is making them adjust what kind and how many fish they add.

Just a few miles down the road from Howard Prairie is Hyatt Lake.  As of May 22, Hyatt was only 42 percent full, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Like at Howard Prairie, the Hyatt boat ramps are too shallow for large boats, and in some places, a large expanse of marshy silt separates the water’s edge and the tree line.

“Hyatt Lake is still going to be stocked, but the ‘legal’ size fish that we put in, we’re putting in a lot less because of lack of access.  The water is drying up,” says Megan Dugan with ODFW.

Steve Lambert with Jackson County Parks says Howard Prairie Lake is 26 vertical feet below full.

Steve Lambert with Jackson County Parks says Howard Prairie Lake is 26 vertical feet below full.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

ODFW has also cancelled its Hyatt Lake Free Fishing Weekend normally scheduled for mid-June because of the difficulties accessing the water.

As of April, sixty-eight percent of the reservoirs in Oregon and Washington contain less water than average.  And that proportion will likely continue to grow.  The problem is particularly acute in many Cascade reservoirs from Salem to the California line.

This year’s combination of low water levels and low snowpack is unprecedented, and getting the lakes back up will require years of above average snow in the mountains.

In the meantime, at reservoirs like Howard Prairie, Lambert says Jackson County has no say in how much water is allowed to remain.

“These dams were built for irrigation and flood control. So unfortunately I chose the career of going into parks and recreation, which I absolutely love, but I find more and more that it’s not on the top of everyone’s list, like it is mine.”

That means the priorities of skiers and fishermen will always come in a distant third.

Story by Jes Burns. Interactive graphic by Tony Schick and Jason Bernert.

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