In a normal year, when California’s record drought isn’t sapping reservoir levels around the state, clearing some debris from an outlet valve of a 5,800-acre reservoir like Mountain Meadows wouldn’t spell catastrophe.
But this year, for thousands of fish left without water to swim in, it did.
The reservoir is located just south of Lassen National Forest in the Northern California town of Westwood. It’s been a popular fishing hole for recreational anglers and an important source of energy for nearby residents.
Owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the reservoir sits at the top of the energy company’s hydroelectric dam system, connected by the Feather River. On Sept. 13, Mountain Meadows Reservoir, also known as Walker Lake, was already sitting at dangerously low levels when a maintenance crew reportedly cleared out a clogged drainage valve.
By the next morning, the water was gone. All that remained was a field of dead fish and angry residents asking what happened.
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“We’ve been in a really bad drought, so that’s really the main contributor to this whole thing,” said Nils Lunder, director of the Mountain Meadows Conservancy group based in Westwood. “But this was also a poorly managed situation.”
Instead of keeping outflows to a minimum early in the year and letting the lake fill up, Lunder said PG&E kept the lake level low. And with little to no snowpack, inflows over the summer were basically nonexistent.
PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno told CBS News that the company had stopped using the dam for power and had been running outflows at the minimum allowed levels since March. The draining was an unfortunate consequence of the times.
“It’s the situation we worked hard to avoid, but the reality is we’re in a very serious drought, and there’s also concerns for the fish downstream,” Moreno said.
With scientists linking California’s severe drought with human-caused climate change, dried-out reservoirs like Mountain Meadows could become the norm. Water concerns are leading to adaptations in industry and home life, with farmers, residents, and regulators taking steps to reduce use and preserve a resource that is projected to become scarcer as temperatures increase.
For Lunder, the empty reservoir is a chance to start over. For the first time, representatives from PG&E and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will meet with community members to answer questions about what happened.
“Before this, we didn’t have the representation we needed as a community,” Lunder said. “Hopefully, with talking about our concerns, we can avoid this situation in the future.”