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Folsom Lake Water Levels Are Bucking California Drought Trend—Here's Why

Newsweek 1/16/2023 Pandora Dewan
Photo of California's Folsom Reservoir. Water levels in Folsom are above their historical average. © Hunter Souza/Getty Photo of California's Folsom Reservoir. Water levels in Folsom are above their historical average.

As torrential rain continues to batter California, water levels in the Golden State's drought-stricken reservoirs are finally on the rise. Folsom Lake has seen particularly promising improvements, with water levels climbing above historical averages.

"The Folsom dam has been doing really well, to the point where we've had to make what are referred to as flood control releases," Ernest Conant, regional director of the California branch of the U.S Bureau for Reclamation, told Newsweek. "The other reservoirs are doing well too, but not to the degree that we are at Folsom and on the American River."

The Folsom Dam and Reservoir is located approximately 23 miles northeast of Sacramento. The reservoir has a capacity of 976,000 acre-feet and is fed by the American River. It forms part of the federally managed Central Valley Project, run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which supplies water to cities and farms throughout the Central Valley. This project also includes Lake Shasta, Trinity Lake and New Melones Lake.

"All of these reservoirs serve many purposes, and the number one priority is flood control," Conant said. "So what these reservoirs do in a big year like this is they have space to catch water and save it for later use, but that also provides a flood control benefit."

Water levels in Lake Folsom currently sit at 417 feet above average sea level, just 49 feet below full pool. These levels have actually decreased since the start of January as a result of controlled water releases. The reservoir currently holds 502,000 acre-feet of water, and has released 563,000 acre-feet since the start of January, as per data from the Bureau of Reclamation. This is well above the 410,000 average for this time of year.


Over the last three years, California has been gripped by one of the worst droughts in living memory. "The past three years have been the driest three-year period on record," Jeff Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center, previously told Newsweek. "That just beats the driest three-year period on record from 2013 to 2015."

The recent rains have gone some way to alleviate this drought, and the percentage of the state categorized as being under "extreme drought" by the U.S. Drought Monitor has dropped below 1 percent for the first time in years. However, as of January 10, 95 percent of the state is still considered to be under "moderate drought," despite the recent floods, and drought conditions in 46 percent of the state are still being classed as "severe."

While the state's reservoirs are showing promise, most of the reservoirs in the Central Valley Project are still well below their historical average. "All of them except for Folsom need additional water," Conant said.

The recent rainfall has been promising, but last year a period of heavy rain in December was followed by some of the lowest precipitation on record from January to March. "It just stopped raining," Conant said. "That's why we were in such a dire situation this past year."

Donald Bader, the Shasta area manager or the Bureau of Reclamation, previously told Newsweek that the Bureau would not be able to confidently say if there has been enough rain to restore water levels in these reservoirs until February.

"Right now, we're just really hoping the rains continue because we've seen it too many times where they just shut off," he said.

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