As we’ve traveled around southern California in the past couple of years, the stress that the drought California has suffered since 2011 has become apparent. We see dead or dying trees by the thousands. If the drought hasn’t killed them, it’s made them susceptible to fungal infections or insect infestations which weaken and kill them. The current estimates are that the drought has cost California upwards of 137 million trees.
You also see the impact on California’s water supply, where many a river, canyon, or creek capable of carrying any water at all is dameed and turned into a lake. Lake Piru, in the two Landsat photos above, shows how dramatically short of water California still is. We decided to visit the lake after seeing Rancho Camulos since we’ve been seeing some of the bigger lakes (like Pyramid and Castaic), but not the smaller ones like Lake Piru.
The community of Piru was formed shortly after Rancho Camulas, and has a long and rich history of citrus farming. You can see it on the aerial I posted on the Rancho Camulos post. Piru connect to State Route 126 by a two-lane road that hides the town until you’re on top of it.
The community has over a thousand people, a post office, an elementary school, more than one stop sign, a lot of recent housing builds….and the road to Lake Piru.
The lake is about 6 miles upstream from Piru. The road hugs the west side of the valley eroded away by Piru Creek over the last 5 million years or so (this part of California is very young geologically speaking):
About 5 miles in, an earthen dam, built in the 1950’s, backs up Piru Creek and its tributaries to form Lake Piru.
The dam itself is called the Santa Felicia Dam. Why, I don’t know.
The lake generates a little bit of electricity (less than a couple of megawatts, according to what I’ve found) and is used for agricultural irrigation, a necessity in most of the Central Valley and in southern California.
To give you an idea of how low the lake is, take a look at what the dam looks like from the spillway.
The spillway is the concrete slab to the right of the above picture. We were at a pullout just above the spillway. Here’s what it looked like in 2005 when there was enough rain to require its use so that the water didn’t overflow the earthen dam and start eroding its face (think Oroville earlier in 2017):
This is what Lake Piru looks like on now (well, December 19, 2017) looking north from the dam. A local from Fillmore who was there to photograph the super scoopers told us that the lake is only at 35% of capacity. He also said that his mom used to go to elementary school in a school in the 1940’s and 1950’s that’s now well under water. And recently he participated as part of the local search-and-rescue team called in to remove the body of a young woman who recently drowned herself in the lake, which explained the existence of a small, flowered cross at the edge of the pullout.
When we were driving in, we saw a large plane flying quietly overhead. At first it looked like a glider. Regardless of what it was, this is not a heavily-trafficked air corridor.
Here’s a blow-up of the picture.
The iPhone 7 camera is good, but it has limits!
Our new friend from Fillmore told us that some of the super scoopers fighting the Thomas fire were going to be coming in, and he was waiting to take pictures of them when they landed. Suddenly one of them appeared. While I considered taking pictures with my DSLR, I thought a movie on the iPhone would be easier. I had been charging it in the car and hadn’t brought it out. Note to self: always carry the phone with you; you may need to take a picture! I didn’t quite get the landing, but the pilot landed the plane on the water, skimmed the surface picking up the water, and then took off without significantly slowing down. It was quite an experience to watch! Here’s the video from my YouTube channel.
At some point in 2018, I’ll be doing a series about dams and reservoirs in California and the multitude of problems they’re facing. Lake Piru is no exception. Although the water contained behind the dam in minuscule compared to that contained behind the Saint Francis Dam when it collapsed in March of 1928, the people downstream, including those in Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula could be in a world of hurt if the dam gave way. We’ll explore these problems in later posts.
In 2013, the recreational use of Lake Piru led to the introduction of quagga mussels, an invasive species that’s extremely disruptive to the ecology of local waters. They were doubtless introduced by a boater who hadn’t bothered to inspect the bottom of his boat thoroughly. If your interested about more information about quaggas, follow this link for a link to California governmental resources about quagga mussels.