The dying grass crunches under your feet as you walk around the empty park to a picnic table. You look across the park and see the glistening of the water off in the distance.
You walk across the beaten cement path to the sand, taking your sandals off to comfortably walk to the water’s edge.
You walk further than you normally would, as the soft sand turns into tightly packed sand from years of being under water. The cliff beside you have been eroded away from past years of higher water levels with each layer of sedimentary rock showing the various water levels through the years.
The layers stare at you, acting as a sign of the times and reminding you how much things have changed over the past few years.
“If we don’t get rain, it’s empty,” says Chris Mowry, the regional park superintendent at Castaic Lake.
Over the years, the water level at Castaic Lake has been dropping at an alarming rate. The California drought has been taking its toll on this local lake and has even cost the lake money in the past. However, this year, things may be looking up for this local gem.
Castaic lake is comprised of two separate lakes: Castaic Lake Proper, which is also known as the upper lake, is the main reservoir and is the direct supply of our drinking water in the Santa Clarita Valley and Western LA.
“That’s fed from the State Water Project and so we have aqueducts all the way from Northern California, Feather River area, transporting water and snowmelt from the Sierras down to us, and ultimately filling up Castaic Lake,” says Mowry.
The upper lake will fluctuate given any day of the week, depending on how much water they’re using for the direct water supply or how much water is delivered from the aqueducts from Northern California.
“In 2014, our water levels dropped below 1400 feet in the upper lake, and that has been by far the lowest. In 2009, our water levels barely dropped below 1460 feet, and even then, we still had everything open,” says Seth Brown, a clerk for the lake.
The max capacity for the upper lake is 1540 feet, so in 2014, the water levels were down by approximately 150 feet.
The lower lake is called the Lagoon, which is where the swim beaches are located. The Lagoon is filled only by local rainfall and watershed.
In 2014, the lake levels were so low that the lake had to close down the swim beach due to low water levels for the first time in park history.
“We did have low water levels and closed the swim beach down,” says Mowry. “But I don’t think we will do that again if we can ever avoid it.”
2014 was the first year that the swim beach was ever closed down due to low water levels, but this is not the first time the swim beach has been closed. In the 1990s, the swim beach was closed due to bacteria in the lake that was fixed by chlorine lines.
“The big, kind of crazy, change to watch was last February and the preceding February, so really the depth of the drought, it was looking really bad,” says Mowry.
With more rainfall the past few years, both lakes have slowly been returning to their historical average as of 2016.
“We got a little better than we were fearing, but still below average, and so the lagoon is in pretty good shape at the moment. But, come September, it will drop pretty significantly just as the water evaporates and also soaks into the aquifer,” Mowry says.
Since the swim beach closure in 2014, attendance at the lake has gone down because people still think the lake is closed. The upper lake is still open year round, while the swim beach is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
“A lot of people think we’re closed and we’re not. We’re here and having people swim, boat, picnic, wakeboard, fish, camp and all those fun activities,” Mowry says.
Not only do these water levels impact the swim beach and attendance at the lake, but they also affect the fish that live in the lake.
When the water level is low, the fish are forced into a smaller space, causing the bigger fish to eat up everything, including the smaller fish.
“Once we get to the bottom of the lake, there’s no good hiding space for juvenile fish, and so there can be a lot of downward pressure on the fishery as a whole,” Mowry says.
However, the water levels haven’t gotten low enough for the employees and fishermen to see a negative impact on the quantity of fish. The lake is still holding frequent bass tournaments and other fishing activities, such as moonlight fishing and fishing fun with kids.
“Come on down to the lake and enjoy it,” Mowry says.