Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat

A serious drought is putting a crimp on recreational activities at area reservoirs.

At popular boating and fishing spots - like New Melones, Don Pedro and Beardsley reservoirs - lowered lake levels mean some boat launches have been decommissioned, some events have been canceled and anglers are seeing benefits and drawbacks.

On the plus side, some natural and historic features not evident since the last drought in 1992 are becoming visible with dropping lake levels.

New Melones

On Friday, the area's biggest reservoir, New Melones, had to close its primary boat launch in Tuttletown because of the dropping water level. The lake is at one-third its capacity and about half its annual level, said Park Manager Alex Michalek.

It is losing an average of a half-foot of water elevation a day.

It's the lowest the lake has been since 1992. That was at the end of a five-year statewide drought.

The lake's water elevation was about 900 feet above sea level as of Monday.

A few old caves or abandoned mines flooded when the reservoir was filled in the early 1980s may now be visible.

Michalek, however, cautioned against checking out such features. He said most any old settlements are considered cultural artifacts and are illegal to alter.

However, one of the most visible signs of low water - the submerged old Parrotts Ferry Road bridge - will likely not make an appearance this year. It is visible only when the water elevation gets into the low 800s, as it did in 1992.

The lake's record low was in 1992, when it dropped to 724 feet. Its record high was 1,087 feet in 1983.

Despite the lower-than-average water levels, the lake has done well so far in attracting visitors this year, Michalek said. Visitation numbers have been average, except for Memorial Day weekend, which likely exceeded last year, he said.

"It's really impressed me the amount of dedicated fishermen that use this lake. That's what keeps us in business really," he said.

The true test of the drought's impact, he said, will start now that the more popular boat launch ramp is closed.

Boaters must now launch from the Glory Hole Point, at the east end of Angels Camp. That boat launch, the Marina at Glory Hole Point and all campgrounds and day use areas, as well as the New Melones Lake Visitor Center and Museum, are all open.

John Leichty, manager of Glory Hole Sports and a fishing guide, said there are pluses and minuses for fishing in low water levels.

He said shoreline fish like bass and catfish are being pushed further and further down and that makes them ill at ease and a little harder to catch.

But for deepwater fish like trout, he said there is simply less area available to them, so it's easier for anglers to find a good spot and to expect more fish there.

For the full story, see the June 24, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat.