The lake that left town

August 10th, 2016  |  Source: The Guardian

Val Aubrey parked her boat trailer on the shore of Eagle Lake, in north-eastern California. She walked to an overlook where a sign warned against swimming and diving. “This” – she opened her arms wide – “used to be the marina.”

Down below, docks sat among nettles and thistles growing on what used to be the lake bed. The boat ramp led to sunbaked dirt, and squirrels skittered across the concrete.

“They put a tombstone right in the middle of it,” said Aubrey, pointing into the undergrowth. Sure enough, a small Halloween decoration had been erected in the former harbor.

One of the largest natural lakes in the state, Eagle Lake is a shock of blue amid a tawny, isolated upland. But it has fallen around 15ft since 1999, a decline thought to have been exacerbated by climate change.

The main lakeside community of Spalding, a 30-minute drive north of the marina, is dotted with “for sale” signs, and its tidy streets are empty. The waterfront is now a meadow, and the lake has receded to a thin strip in the distance, like an alluring mirage.

There are no longer any restaurants, and the general store is shuttered. Adding to the air of misfortune, dozens of the wells that supply residents with water have gone dry, necessitating deeper ones.

The hardships facing the lake stand in contrast to its reputation as a fishery.According to the outdoors writer Tom Stienstra, “It was among the most prized lakes in America.”

It’s main attraction is the indigenous Eagle Lake rainbow trout, whose salmon-colored meat is said to be uncommonly delicious. Anglers continue to land big, healthy fish. But half as many of them are visiting, in part because only one boat ramp on the entire, 13-mile-long lake is still operational.

“Gimme water, lord,” said Aubrey, a 56-year-old with a sea-dog vibe and a cigarette crackle in her voice. “I think that’s the thought of everyone round here.”

In the shadow of the disused marina, she backed her trailer down the ramp and into the glassy shallows as chub minnows darted away. There was a thump as the wheels dropped onto the mud at the end, a sign of how close the structure is to being unusable. Aubrey undid some clips, and her 19-footer, Dream Catcher, floated onto the lake.

Chugging out, it was hard to tell that anything was amiss. The unruffled water stretched to sere, tree-speckled hills and a cloudless sky. White pelicans cruised past like ungainly swans. Grebes emitted tinkling chirps and chuckles, and pairs of them performed a courtship dance in which they lifted themselves off the surface and appeared to run across it. When the boat approached, they dove underwater instead of flying away.

Once a fishing guide, Aubrey wore enamel earrings in the shape of trout. “There’s more to Eagle Lake than just fishing,” she said. “Our hearts are here. Our souls are here.”

Even so, spurs of dry land have appeared where previously there was none. Aubrey pulled into the lee of a sand bar that had gradually risen out of the waves. “Before this area was above water, this was just black with grebes,” she said.

Last year, some vast northern sections of the lake almost dried up completely, only to be regenerated, to a certain extent, by the winter rains. They were still too shallow for Dream Catcher.

Back at the marina, operated by a couple named Grace and Scott McCullough, it was lunchtime. With vacationers perusing snacks and fishing lures in the large, well-stocked shop, and hot food on offer from a trailer, it felt like the vacation spot that Eagle Lake prides itself on being.

At a picnic table outside, there was skepticism as to whether Eagle Lake was at the vanguard of a more ominous, human-influenced global shift. “I’m not an over-the-top believer that we can adjust the climate of this earth that much,” said Scott McCullough, a retired marine.

“I agree with Scott,” said Lee Crane, a semi-retired dentist from Sacramento, who was eating burgers at the other end of the table with his wife, Dottie. “You could take all the diesel stacks in the United States and let ‘em go and the earth wouldn’t know the difference, in my opinion.”

Bobette Jones, an ecologist with the Eagle Lake ranger district, sees it differently. With less snow falling in the area, there is less snowmelt to recharge the watershed, while more dry months each year mean increased evaporation.

“I think there’s a pretty strong trend that the lake is definitely going to be much more shallow in the future,” she said by telephone. “It’s sort of a doom-and-gloom and not-happy story, but that is what the data is showing. Hopefully we’re wrong.”

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