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The Low Water Levels of Lake Mendocino are Absolutely Frightening

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When I was young, my father and I drove north to Lake Mendocino from the Bay Area two or three times a year. My sister would tag along sometimes with piles of homework on her lap while I studied some nerdy Final Fantasy videogame guide. Being kids, when Dad told us we were going for a trip, it was an adventure, a step into a world far different than our own, one filled with new towns, new faces, new ways of living in this mad world.

At that time, my sister and I were in middle school, that innocent, wild-eyed scene where the beauty of the natural world was at its purest, free of distraction, cynicism, or pain. I remember the brightness of the sun, the coiled sand under my bare feet, and how fast the current of the East Fork Russian River ran as we floated on our bellies.

What the lake should look like (photo from 2006 by KGlavin in Wiki Commons)

As soon as we parked, our fishing lines were in the river. The water, as I recall, was consistently high and surging, ripping against the single stone two-foot jumping rock where many kids conquered their greatest fears. In the early days, no one was ever around when we arrived. We could stay all day with maybe a few college dropouts slink around the tall grass to suck necks. When my sister and I would wander up river underneath the chaotic bridge tormented by tankers and locals, we usually saw some other families basking in the afternoon sun, their toes dipped in the tranquil emerald water, carefree and alive. Time seemed to step behind the curtain of Mother Nature, leaving us to enjoy Her with interruption.

Years passed, and every trip, we noticed our river and the surrounding water started to get lower. The current that once carried my sister and me down our strip of beach in ten seconds now barely moved us. Lake Mendocino, the rare times that we swam in it, began to show its bare, bleached rock, the dark high watermark proof of what was happening. Our concerns at the time were mere throw-aways, small-talk, all with the thought that it would undoubtedly be “better next year.”

On Thursday, local water officials described this year’s current drought conditions in the area as the second lowest level in history for Lake Mendocino. The National Weather Service office in Eureka reported Ukiah received 13.19 inches of rain since October 1st, 2020, less than half the average amount for what it should be at time: 32.87 inches. Last year by this week, Ukiah had received 13.01 inches of rain.

Back when we were kids, we had no idea what it meant when we saw a fuel tank truck filled not with gas but trout. Their bodies looked like they had been electrocuted with their curled, metallic crescent moon bodies in the air, confused and disorientated. Even at that age, I could sense this “solution,” but really, it was all an industrial solution, a remedy to solve an issue much more extensive than our little river up north. I knew something was wrong.

Lake Mendocino during drought conditions, June 14, 2021. (CBS)

From this study of a variety of trout researched in 2015, “…brown and rainbow trout are likely to decline to varying degrees depending on their specific tolerance of warming and impacts from other trout.” Traditionally, trout are farmed and shipped to ensure the rivers are stocked, visitors are happy, and the original ecosystem of the area, the one my sister and I grew up with, can continue but, looking back, I can’t help but think, what’s happening?

Lake Mendocino and the surrounding rivers aren’t the only areas suffering.

California’s reservoirs are down to levels that haven’t been seen until our last drought. Specifically, smaller water districts along the Russian River, the same area where we used to fish and swim, are among the worst. Many are requested to decrease their usage of water to prevent further shortages. In Sacramento, residents, similar to those affected by the wildfires, are growing concerned about the diminishing levels at Folsom Lake. The 63-year-old reservoir hasn’t seen these kinds of levels since 1977, according to state records. According to California officials, on top of the lack of rain is the heat, causing the possibility of all endangered salmon species’ juveniles being cooked to death by this fall. Similar to what I saw in my youth, there are measures to help the species. Still, the community, one that has seen these same tactics before, can’t help but wonder if these temporary fixes are just prolonging the inevitable due to a much bigger issue.

California, as well as the world, knows about the state’s ongoing issue with wildfires. The state has already seen 750 more wildfires and 42,000 more acres burned since this time last year, resulting in the governor’s adding 500 million to wildfire prevention. Similar to trout planting along with moving whole salmon populations to prevent local extinction, the state continues to throw money at an issue that, year after year, appears to be getting worse, no matter what we as individuals and a collective do. I can’t help but ask myself, what’s our breaking point? And I emphasize that because, in the end, we can’t all be Bezos and launch into space to witness the end of the world.

One of my favorite memories of our river that ran into Lake Mendocino was the infamous jumping rock. The thing’s surface was treacherous, littered with beer bottle caps, lost lures, fishing line, and jagged, uneven surface. If we wanted to jump, we had to earn it with grit and pain. Yet, drenched in the Northern California sunshine, our young skin seemingly immune to sunburns, our little bodies overwhelmed by the expanse of the baby blue sky, it was always worth it. There was nothing better but the cool, emerald water shocking us into an entirely new world where we would never touch the bottom, left only to float in complete control of the river. Now, the water of that same river is so low no one jumps from it. You’d bust your ass and probably break your tailbone, those feelings of youthful, natural bliss lost unless we address this problem of climate change, never take “enough” as an answer, and never, ever stop fighting.

Below are some local climate change activist groups you can volunteer and join if you’re interested. As with all hard, meaningful things in this world, the first step is knowing how to do the actual work.

350 Bay Area

SF Environment

Save the Bay is also an excellent source for all your meetup needs.

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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.