Lake Oroville, previously a glaring symbol of California’s prolonged megadrought, has made a striking comeback, with data from the state’s Department of Water Resources confirming it is now at full capacity.
The state’s drought-afflicted reservoirs have witnessed significant recuperation in the last few months, thanks to a series of storms. This replenishment is a welcome change, given that these reservoirs have been teetering at critically low levels for several years, as per official reports.
Lake Oroville, the second-largest and arguably the most hard-hit reservoir in the state, is now at 100% of its total capacity and 127% of its expected capacity for this time of year. This is a major uplift after the climate-change-driven megadrought nearly depleted its water reserves.
The state water agency reported in a community update that a sequence of heavy winter storms and subsequent snowmelt runoff have added 2.5 million acre-feet of water to the lake, resulting in a rise of more than 240 feet since December 1.
In 2021, Lake Oroville’s levels had plummeted to just 24% of its total capacity. The water level dropped so significantly that a major hydroelectric power plant had to be shut down in August 2021, for the first time since its inauguration in 1967.
The power plant, the fourth-largest hydroelectric energy producer in the state as per the California Energy Commission, has the capacity to power up to 800,000 homes when fully operational. The shutdown underscored the severity of the drought.
Despite Oroville’s water levels being below average in 2022, last winter’s storms brought record-breaking precipitation to the Sierra Nevada, providing a much-needed boost to the lake’s levels. This allowed the power plant to resume operations in January 2022, after approximately five months of inactivity.
Lake Oroville, part of the State Water Project system managed by the California Department of Water Resources, supplies water to 29 public water agencies serving 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.
With the reservoir now at full capacity, there’s potential for waves to splash over the crest of the emergency spillway on particularly windy days, according to the water resources agency. This is a scenario that would have been nearly unimaginable just months ago.
The agency plans to continue optimizing operations for water storage and environmental protection while ensuring carryover storage into the next year.
However, Lake Oroville’s recovery is just one part of the broader Western water crisis. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, is now at 97% of its total capacity and 119% of its historical average.