March rains fill Clear Lake, restoring hope for Lake County tourism, farmers

Steady March rainfall has raised Clear Lake to its highest level in five years, a boon that’s expected to reap rewards for the local tourism industry as well as farmers who depend on lake water for irrigation.

Tourism officials say spending by visitors to the area has been on the rise in the past few years, despite the statewide drought. A now-full lake is expected to make the Lake County destination even more enticing to visitors as boating ramps up, they said.

“We’re anticipating a good season,” said Lake County Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Melissa Fulton.

Some fishing-related businesses report that consumer activity has been bustling so far this year, thanks to good weather, an improving economy statewide and good action for anglers on the state’s second largest natural lake.

“The fishing has been fabulous,” said Bob Higgins, who with his wife owns Limit Out Gift and Tackle, along with a nearby motel. He said crappie have been biting for the first time in several years, and word is getting around. In addition, a Clear Lake angler recently caught the heftiest bass - weighing 16.3 pounds - since the 1990s.

“They’re coming from Oregon, Washington, all over” to fish, Higgins said of fishermen.

The hotter fishing may not be directly tied to lake levels, Higgins noted, but the full lake ensures that all area boat ramps are in service, giving anglers easier access to get on the water. Several ramps were closed during parts of the past two years because of low water levels.

Nevertheless, Clear Lake remained in better shape than most other California lakes, many of which were entirely closed to motor boats for much of the past two years. Those in Northern California and the Sierra foothills are rising with recent rains and snowmelt.

Clear Lake on Wednesday was at 7.87 feet on the Rumsey Gauge, a still-used 19th century measurement based on a gauge installed at Lakeport. The lake is considered full when it reaches 7.56 feet on the Rumsey Gauge.

The lake starts to become a flood threat at about 9 feet on the gauge, said Will Evans, deputy director of the county’s Department of Water Resources.

It takes a lot of water to raise the 68-square-mile lake by a foot, Evans said. When full, the lake holds some 1.1 million acre feet of water, he said. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to fill a football field with one foot of water.

“We’re not concerned” about flooding at this time, Evans said.

Some of the main beneficiaries of the replenished water supply are Yolo County farmers. The Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District owns the right to up to 150,000 acre-feet of Clear Lake water, depending on its level. It gets none if the water doesn’t reach Zero Rumsey, based on a rock ledge that was the natural low-water level before a dam was erected on Cache Creek, the lake’s outlet. The district gets the full allotment if it reaches 7.56 feet by May 1 each year.

“We will receive our full entitlement” from Clear Lake this year, said flood control district Manager Tim O’Halloran. The district supplies irrigation water to about 200 farms on 200,000 acres, he said.

Last year, they had access to only about 40,000 acre-feet from Clear Lake. In 2014, it was zero.

Farmers get by in water-short years by tapping into their groundwater, reducing their crop sizes and planting crops that require less water, O’Halloran said.

The water shortages in recent years also dried up whitewater rafting and other recreation on Cache Creek.

“It’s much better this year than the last three years,” O’Halloran said of the outlook.

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