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Low water levels taking toll on Lake Tahoe rec businesses

Margaret Moran
Low water levels are threatening boating on Lake Tahoe. Starting July 28, Sand Harbor’s boat ramp will be closed for the remainder of the season, according to Nevada Division of State Parks. The parking lot will remain open for carry-in boat access only. All other boaters will be directed to use state’s Cave Rock boat ramp facility.
Margaret Moran / Sierra Sun |

For Larry Boerner, the region’s recent rainfall comes as a relief amid California’s ongoing drought.

“The water we can get is a blessing,” said Boerner, owner of the commercial vessel Tahoe Gal. “It could add another day to our existence this summer.”

Normally, the side-wheeler that offers cruises on Lake Tahoe operates from mid-May to mid-October, but with low water levels due to the drought, its season may be cut short.

“By the end of September, it’s going to be a wait and see where the lake level will be then — if we can extend it into October or not,” Boerner said.

As of Tuesday morning, Tahoe was at 6,223.98 feet above sea level. Its natural rim is 6,223 feet.

The Tahoe Gal can operate when the lake is a foot below its natural rim, but beyond that, operation would prove difficult, Boerner said.

“The East Shore has a lot of little rocks, and there’s a lot of obstacles starting to show now, so you’ve got to be much more careful,” he said.

Jim Phelan, general manager of the Tahoe City Marina, has seen more boat propeller damage recently due to shallower shores, and that several sailboats can’t even come into the marina.

“This year I think it’s more of an impact on the boaters than us,” Phelan said. “I really feel for the boaters as the launch ramps close down.”

Starting July 28, Sand Harbor’s boat ramp will be closed for the remainder of the season on Tahoe’s East Shore, according to Nevada Division of State Parks. The closure will prevent watercraft from being damaged and protect the end of launch lanes from harm.

The parking lot will remain open for carry-in boat access only. All other boaters will be directed to use the state’s Cave Rock boat ramp facility.


Due to low water levels, Truckee River Rafting Company closed on July 16 before re-opening July 18.

“The only reason why we’re open today is because we had that huge storm last night,” Aaron Rudnick, owner of the rafting company, said Friday afternoon. “If that storm wouldn’t have come, we’d be done. … Now we’ll probably get the whole weekend.”

A series of rain and thunderstorms pelted the region several days last week, with the heaviest precipitation falling Sunday.

According to the Associated Press, the largest rainfall totals Sunday were 2.90 inches at Lake Tahoe’s Glenbrook, with Incline Village receiving more than 2 inches. In a little over two hours, Incline Creek went from being basically dry to rising just below flood stage.

The Truckee River in Tahoe City was about 3.49 feet deep before the recent rainstorms, said Chris Smallcomb, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Reno. It rose about two inches before dropping to 3.58 feet by Monday morning.

As of Tuesday morning, Rudnick said Truckee River Rafting Company was still open. Without additional rain, however (none is in the extended forecast), he doesn’t know if it will stay open to the end of the week.

“July and August are our best, most lucrative months,” Rudnick said. “June is sort of the warm-up for the big game, and August is the best, nothing is better than August.

“… So losing August is going to hurt the most. You have to have the Fourth of July just to pay the bills, and it normally takes being open about 45 days to cover your cost, so we’re looking at a week of profit.”


In order to sustain operations, the Truckee River flow rate in Tahoe City would need be at least 200 cubic feet per second, Rudnick said.

The minimum water level required to open Tahoe reservoirs to flow into the Truckee River is below 500 cfs. This is referred to as the Floriston Rate — a long-standing federal rule that stipulates that as long as the flow is high through Floriston in the Truckee River, the U.S. District Court Water Masters Office can’t release extra water from Lake Tahoe.

“You can’t release water if it isn’t there, and unfortunately, that’s been a couple years’ process that the reservoirs have dropped that low,” said Frank Wohlfahrt, president of Truckee-based IRIE Rafting Company.

IRIE Rafting Company is only scheduling trips on the Truckee River up to Aug. 1.

“After Aug. 1, unfortunately, the water master has informed us that the resource is no longer there, so we’re going to get much lower flows that we’re not going to be able to raft on,” Wohlfahrt said.

Normally, the company’s season on the Truckee is from May into October, with peak business between Memorial Day and Labor Day, he said.

“I’m not going to lie, it is financially painful for us to lose a third of our season, but it is what it is,” Wohlfahrt said.

IRIE will continue to offer rafting on the Middle Fork of the American River after Aug. 1. While the Middle Folk normally generates 20 percent of business, the Truckee River is the most popular, garnering 70 to 80 percent of business, he said.

As a result, the company’s 15 employees will likely go from working five days a week to two.


Low area water levels are a result of three consecutive mild, dry winters.

Since October 2011, Tahoe City has received about 64 inches of precipitation in the form of rain and snow, when normally it would get 101 inches of precipitation, Smallcomb said, leaving the area about 37 inches short.

In a typical water year, Tahoe City receives 34 inches of precipitation.

“It’s as if an entire winter has never happened,” Smallcomb said.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 100 percent of California was in “severe drought” as of July 15, while 81.85 percent was in “extreme drought” and 36.49 percent was in “exceptional drought.”

In order to recover from the drought, a wet winter — or more likely two in a row — will be needed, Smallcomb said.

Early predictions for this winter are calling for El Niño, which is associated with warmer-than normal ocean temperatures. It can bring weather extremes to parts of the nation.

“Even if we had an El Niño, it’s kind of hard to predict what kind of winter we’ll have,” said Smallcomb, considering some El Niño years are wet, while others are dry.

Still, hopes are high this winter will be a wet, snowy one.

“This winter we just hope we have a good, above-average winter to kind of get us out of this whole slump,” Wohlfahrt said.

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