Low lake level changing life at Lake Tahoe

No water is flowing from Lake Tahoe to the Truckee River. Photos/Kathryn Reed

No water is flowing from Lake Tahoe to the Truckee River. Photos/Kathryn Reed

Publisher’s note: Lake Tahoe News spent March 22 driving around the lake looking at and documenting more than 20 locations to show what the drought looks like throughout the basin all on the same day.

By Kathryn Reed

It’s not unusual for Lake Tahoe to drop below its rim. What is unusual is when the spring runoff doesn’t bring it back up and above that 6,223-foot mark.

“This year the way things look it would take some pretty big precipitation to get back above its natural rim this year,” Scott McGuire, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, told Lake Tahoe News. “The projection is for Lake Tahoe to be significantly below its rim by fall 2015.”


When it fell below the rim in October 2014, this was the first time in five years. Some of the other times it was below the rim were 1977-78, 1961-62 and 1930-36.

On March 22, Lake Tahoe was at 6222.83 feet.

The record low of 6220.25 feet was set in 1992. (Records have been kept since 1900.)

In 2014, the snowmelt added 3 inches to Lake Tahoe. With substantially less snow falling this winter, it is near impossible the lake will rise by that much this spring.

Seasonal businesses were hurting last summer as documented by Lake Tahoe News.  For many of those same businesses it will only be worse this year.

Business owners may need to rethink how and when they do business because the model used even three to five years ago isn’t going to work today.

Instead of trying to get a jumpstart on Mother Nature with opening ski resorts pre-Thanksgiving, it might be time to have an intense, stellar shorter ski season. Then crank up the public relations to woo out-of-towners here for spring – a season often ignored.

If the weather patterns of the last few years are the new normal, it will mean learning to adapt to less snow and more summer-like days. In some ways this could be good for the Lake Tahoe Basin because summer has always been the busiest season. It may mean that season is now longer.

And if it’s hotter in the Central Valley and Bay Area sooner and longer, people may drive to Tahoe to cool off and recreate. This might solve the shoulder season blues.

Driving around the lake on Sunday was at times reminiscent of a summer weekend. Parking lots were full of people enjoying the outdoors. Restaurants were busy – at least the ones that were open.

Jumping in off piers and docks at Lake Tahoe is not advised.

Jumping off piers and docks at Lake Tahoe is not advised.

Signs of drought

For those in California, there will be much more beach access this year. (Nevada has different rules when it comes to public access on private beaches.) Sand and rocks are exposed in places that have not seen the light of day in years.

So many piers have little or no water under them. Signs saying “no diving, no jumping” are posted in some locales. It’s advice that will need to be adhered to at all piers and docks this year to avoid injury or worse.

Floating docks will have an easier time accommodating people. Many marinas have a combo of fixed and floating structures. This means the ramp between the two keeps getting steeper. Some are clearly not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It would be tricky to walk down them carrying a cooler or small child.

Water marks on bulkheads and boulders are visible symbols of just how far the lake level has fallen.

Tahoe piers-drought: Tahoe KeysTahoe Keys Property Owners Association Pier

Four of the six pilings making the extended seating area at the pier are in water – 6 inches at the deepest.

A small sandbar has been created near the shore, which has allowed pooling to occur between the beach and lake. The area nearest the water is muddy and uninviting.

Across the channel is Cove East, which extends even farther into the lake. But it, too, has a large swath that is more swampish than beach-like.

Tahoe piers-drought: Camp RichCamp Richardson

Much of the boat ramp is sand. The water level by the gas pumps looks as though not many boats would have clearance to get to them. They are on the fixed dock, so they seem even higher as the lake gets lower.

Looking down Jameson Beach, most of the private docks are covering only sand.

Tahoe piers-drought: Emerald BayEmerald Bay

Navigating the entrance to the bay was tricky last boating season. It’s only going to be worse this year, with some boats not able to get in.

It’s as though most of the bay is rimmed by sand. At the end by Vikingsholm and below the swath of mountain that decades ago sustained a landslide is debris from that slide that had been under water.

Tahoe piers-drought: Meeks BayMeeks Bay Resort

The sand, even near the water, is silky white. The water is incredibly clear, at times reflecting various hues of blue. It’s Caribbean-like.

The end of the walkway is now far from the water.

While the channel inside the bulkhead leading to the docks and boat launch is deep, the lake level outside this area is not going to permit all boats to come and go.

Tahoe piers-drought: Sugar Pine PointSugar Pine Point State Park

With all the rocks and pine cones on the beach, it won’t beckon sunbathers like the beach down the road does. Many more rocks are visible than last fall.

The last rung on the swim ladder at the end of the pier is no longer in the water.

Tahoe piers-drought: West ShoreBetween Tahoma and Homewood

White moorings bob in the lake, only time will tell if they will be filled with boats. Not all marinas will be accessible for launching, and then some of the moorings will be in too shallow of water for deep-hulled vessels.

So many private docks along this stretch of the West Shore as well as ones closer to Tahoe City are covering rocks instead of water.


Water is no longer touching the concrete on the boat launch. Trailers will be backing onto rocks.

The ramps here have some of the more extreme angles going from the fixed pier to the floating docks.

Tahoe piers-drought: Tahoe City Dam, Truckee RiverTahoe City Dam

It’s possible to walk near the base of the dam because of the lack of water on the Lake Tahoe side of the dam. Buoys that say “Danger Dam” seem silly and sad without water.

On the other side of the dam there is water, but looking farther down the Truckee River it is more rocks than water.

This means the rafting season on the Truckee River is likely a no-go.

Tahoe piers-drought: Tahoe CityCommons Beach/Tahoe City Marina

Walking along the Lakeside Trail the lake is a little farther away. People don’t seem to mind as they wander along the rocks.

Tahoe piers-drought: Tahoe Vista Recreation AreaTahoe Vista Recreation Area

No boats will be launched here anytime soon.

Tahoe piers-drought: Kings BeachKings Beach

The pier covers more sand than water.

California Tahoe Conservancy and California Department of Parks and Recreation are hosting a workshop April 1 from 6:30-8pm seeking input on the feasibility and design for a reconstructed public pier.

Tahoe piers-drought: Lone EagleLone Eagle Pier

The gate on the dock preventing people from walking to the end is over sand so it’s useless right now.

Tahoe piers-drought: Sand HarborSand Harbor

While this area is always rocky, now large boulders are exposed. Plenty of sand exists. The canvas Mother Nature is working with keeps getting more beautiful.

Tahoe piers-drought: GlenbrookGlenbrook

The creek running into the lake near the pier is rippling across a rocky beach. The pier looks more like something out of bygone Tahoe than a functioning structure today.

Tahoe piers-drought: Cave RockCave Rock

One of the few boat launches in the basin that is useable. Rocks, though, continue to be exposed near the beach area.


Tahoe piers-drought: Zephyr CoveZephyr Cove

The new dock is installed. The M.S. Dixie II wil run again after it is rehabbed.

Tahoe piers-drought: Ski RunSki Run Marina

The Tahoe Queen will be able to run again when the channel is dredged.

Tahoe piers-drought: Timber CoveTimber Cove Marina

Access via Bal Bijou Road still isn’t available because of Tahoe Beach Retreat’s lingering construction project. (The hotelier is also still arguing with South Lake Tahoe about signage on the beach.)

It would be hard to get a kayak under most areas of the pier because of the shallow water and sand bars. The gas pump on the dock is completely inaccessible.


Tahoe piers-drought: Lakeview CommonsEl Dorado Beach Boat Launch/Lakeview Commons/Regan Beach

This launch has been off-limits for years. Now there is no chance anyone will drive onto the dirt to get to the water because of the boulders at the end of the launch.

With the amount of beach area, a much larger stage could be erected for Live at Lakeview Commons.

Pilings from piers of eras gone by can be seen from here down Lakeview Avenue past Regan Beach. At Regan Beach the dog beach used to be mostly water – not so anymore.


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Comments (19)
  1. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    Kae, Excellent article and photos about the low lake level! Glad you are bringing this to the publics attention. Much needed reporting!
    We are facing some serious times here environmentaly and econonomicaly with being in this drought.
    We are looking at high fire danger in the sierras and extreme water conservation thru out the state.
    It’s gonna be a long hot summer. OLS

  2. oldtimer says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    Excellent Article KAE, Thank you.

  3. Irish Wahini says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    I hope there is lots of fire-safety education this spring/summer – hikers/campers, BBQers, smokers, fire-pit users, fireplace users, etc. I’ll never forget a visitor at a neighbor’s cabin who thought he coukd dispose of BBQ ashes/embers in a cardboard box — almost burned down the cabin! And, there are still a lot of smokers in Tahoe who need to learn to field-strip their cig butts or carry a “silent butler” – please don’t toss butts out car/truck windows!

  4. fromform says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    CRV cigarette butts

  5. Toxic Warrior says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    Great time for lake shore property owners to rush out and extend their fences to keep all the undesirables from obstructing their views

  6. gigguy says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, then these say it all………great article.

  7. Atomic says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    Good article. Any retailer will tell you that even with a longer summer season, the real crowds won’t show up until school is out. Winter business is weather driven, summer business is school driven. The empty nesters and retirees will have to step up for that to change.

  8. Joan Young says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    Kae: Thanks for taking us for a ride around the lake to view the results of this sad winter. You’ve opened many eyes to what lies ahead here at Tahoe. Soon we’ll be moving into the Sacramento Valley (health reasons) and will envy all that you enjoy up here. Savor all that you can. If the weather pattern is cyclical, then be grateful when the storms come back.

  9. sunriser2 says - Posted: March 23, 2015

    Great pictures Kae,

    If you would like I can meet you and give you pictures to post from October of 1994 showing the intake area to to Tahoe City Dam that had been dry for so many years that weeds and willows were waist high.

    Not saying that times aren’t tough but this has been much worse in the past.

    In addition I have pictures of my cabin in January of 1995 with 12 food snow berms. The lake was almost filled (to capacity) that winter.

  10. Jeff says - Posted: March 24, 2015

    We pulled our sailboat out of the Keys in September, it was very difficult to do even then. Now with the water even lower, there is no way we can launch it this year.
    Very sad for all the businesses and people depending on the marinas and their clients for a living. We will still come by and try to spend money with those most affected.

  11. Virginia Glenn says - Posted: March 24, 2015

    Great article Kae and terribly sad reality. One thing the Tahoe businesses could do is point out that with the lake so low we have much more beach/sand space so no one will be crowded.

  12. Tom L says - Posted: March 25, 2015

    SO SAD.

  13. sunny says - Posted: March 25, 2015

    so the question is with more beach equals more people…how to capitalize? Existing companies should be figuring this out….

    About the drought? we are still above the lowest point that was set in 1992…records show in 1993 tahoe received 492 inches of snow.

    My point? Enjoy the sun, we will get replenished in the near future. This is simply nature’s cycle. Our true issue is how to capitalize when we recieve snow and rain and not to simply forget the ‘drought’ times. water conservecy is much more important when we have water than when we get low. It’s to late at that point…

  14. jimmy says - Posted: March 25, 2015

    How low can it go! Not time to panic, time to celebrate amazing sand beaches, long walks on the shore, and sights of years gone by that now appear. It will rain and snow again. It always does. In the meantime, save water, and go to Tahoe and enjoy the greatest summer vacation of all!

  15. Debra Hall says - Posted: March 29, 2015

    I grew up in Lake Tahoe in the 1960’s and 1970’s Never was the Lake that low. You mentioned years in the 60’s and 70’s as being low water run off years. But they were never so low as to stop flowing into the Truckee river. It’s sad to see the lake this low. It is the proof that Global warming is hurting this planet.

  16. mark says - Posted: March 29, 2015

    Did you have any pictures of the boat launch next to the coast guard station in lake forest? Or did I miss that one?

    thanks – great tour of the lake

  17. Scott Saunders says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    Thank you for such an informative article. As a person who lives in Texas but whose soul resides in Tahoe, it pains me to see these pictures. I am certain that this will pass and soon be no more than a sad memory.

  18. Rev. Michael says - Posted: April 1, 2015

    Great article, thanks Kae.

  19. tj says - Posted: April 21, 2015

    Thanks for bringing this to light. Most people living here don’t care about the drought; they are watering their lawns and washing cars in the driveway.

    This is not like the other “dry spells.”

    This drought is a people mover.

    Please stop dumping drinking water on the ground.

    Have a nice day.