Rick Apted has been operating the Lake Sabrina Boat Landing for 40 years. This past week he pulled his boats back up from the exposed lake bottom; the café will only be open on weekends. His boat landing has been reduced to a snack and tackle shop.
Jared Smith’s family bought Parchers Resort eight years ago and started making improvements to the facility, just a mile below South Lake where they operate the boat launch. Based on predictions in March, Smith got a couple of small boats to the water’s edge in anticipation of a functioning launch once the water levels started coming back up. This week, the boats were dragged back up the rocky, make-shift road. The boat rentals accounted for roughly 25 percent of the resort’s income. The water in South Lake never even got high enough for fish stocking by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The last two years have seen drought conditions in the Eastern Sierra, one explanation for the 2,900 acre-feet of water in South Lake in June of this year, according to the California Department of Water Resources’ Data Exchange Center. During the five-year drought that ran from 1987 to 1992, the lowest level for the month of June at South Lake was 4,238 acre-feet recorded in June, 1988.
Both lakes are dammed reservoirs operated by Southern California Edison. The flows feed the hydroelectric plants that dot the Bishop Creek drainage, ending with Plant 6 where the water is released to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Edison is responsible for the releases at both lakes, but is also governed by the 1922 Chandler Decree, 79-pages of water legalese and parcel descriptions. The decree is the result of arbitration between Hillside Water Company, SCE’s predecessor, and 150 defendants with water rights in the Bishop Cone, a watershed bordered on the north and east by the Owens River, extending past Keough’s Hot Springs to the south and crawling up to 5,000 feet elevation to the west. The decree etched in stone the flow to be released by then Hillside and now SCE from April to September, “for the purpose of irrigation, domestic use and watering livestock.” The guaranteed flow in early April is 44 cfs, increasing to 106 cfs from June to August and dropping to 53 cfs in the last two weeks of September.
The Chandler Decree also requires SCE maintain the flow in Bishop Creek; how it feeds the creek is up to SCE.
The Sales Agreement of 1933 “transferred property and rights from many entities to DWP and also mandated that Edison not carry over from one year to another more than 10 percent of the total storage in Bishop Creek,” according to Deborah Hess, SCE’s regional manager of public affairs. South Lake’s capacity, according to the Chandler Decree, is 14,000-acre feet; Sabrina’s capacity is 7,500 acre-feet.
According to Dan Golden, manager of SCE’s hydroelectric plants, SCE has asked DWP for variances on the Chandler Decree in past years to maintain water levels at South Lake and Sabrina in low-water years and that variance has been granted. “DWP has been sensitive to the concessionaires,” Golden said. “We’ve requested variances twice this year and have been denied twice.”
DWP acknowledged past variances in a statement released by Chris Plakos, DWP public relations. “These agreements did not relieve Southern California Edison from the court-mandated requirements of the Chandler Decree and were stated as being made on a non-precedent-setting basis.”
The statement cited the two drought years and other issues. “The LADWP also faces the challenge of providing potable water to over four million people in Los Angeles while meeting its legal obligations and other commitments to provide water for numerous environmental projects in the Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra. These include delivering approximately 90,000 acre-feet annually to Owens Lake for dust mitigation, 20,000 acre-feet to the Lower Owens River Project, over 70,000 acre-feet for Inyo and Mono county irrigation, 10,000 acre-feet for Owens Valley stockwater, 10,000 acre-feet for Enhancement/Mitigation Projects, 10,000 acre-feet for recreation and wildlife uses, 5,000 acre-feet for Owens Valley Reservations, 70,000 acre-feet for Mono Lake … This year LADWP needs to have Bishop Creek flows to be in accordance with the Chandler Decree and be maintained in a manner that endeavors to best meet those different and sometimes competing uses.”
Apted had to lay off four employees at Sabrina; at the rate the water level is dropping, he anticipates the lake will be dry by the end of August. Barring continuing drought conditions, he also anticipates that his customers will return. “The regulars will come back when the lake comes back,” he said.
Both he and Smith have their own theories as to what happened to their 2013 fishing season, as do anglers who have fished the Bishop Creek lakes. “A lot of our visitors are asking ‘What’s going on?’” said Smith. “We have guys who have come up here for 50 or 60 years, since they were kids and they’ve never seen the lake this low …Why is this drought managed differently than in the past?”