The water level at Lake Oroville, as seen Aug. 21, drops a little more every day. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

During a drought it’s hard to imagine the primary reason the Oroville Dam was built was for flood control measures.

As the tallest earthen dam in the United States at 770 feet, today it seems like a bit of an overkill considering how low Lake Oroville is.

This dam on the Feather River was completed in 1967, with the spillway finished a year later.

Houseboats at Lime Saddle are on land because there isn’t enough water. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Earlier this month the lake level broke the record low set in September 1977 of 645 feet above sea level. As of Aug. 23 it was at 632.02 feet, and dropping. What the record for 2021 will be set at will be marked once it starts to rain.

When full, the lake’s water level is at 900 feet.

On Aug. 5, Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said, “This is the first time Hyatt Powerplant has gone offline as a result of low lake levels. This is just one of many unprecedented impacts we are experiencing in California as a result of our climate-induced drought. California and much of the western part of the United States are experiencing the impacts of accelerated climate change including record-low reservoir levels due to dramatically reduced runoff this spring.”

Houseboats at Lime Saddle arm of Lake Oroville compete for water to float on; the ramp is closed. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The power plant had to be shut down because it needs a minimum water level to function. This underground plant had been operating continuously since it was completed in 1967.

Farmers and municipalities that rely on State Water Project water are only receiving 5 percent of their allotments right now because there isn’t any more to give. Oroville is the second largest reservoir in the state behind Shasta Lake.

Another resource of Lake Oroville’s is as a recreation destination. Not so much this year.

A few houseboats remain in the water. At Lime Saddle they look like tiny specks sharing a bath tub worth of water. Several are dry docked in two parking lots. They had to be pulled out of the water because there wasn’t going to be enough wet stuff for all of them to share.

It is possible to drive, walk and bike across Oroville Dam. (Image: Kathryn Reed)


Facts about the dam:

  • At 770 feet, it is the tallest earthen dam in the United States.
  • Crest length is 6,920 feet.
  • Base width is 3,500 feet.
  • The state of California owns the reservoir/dam.
  • A sack of sand and gravel from each of the 58 counties in the state were used in the construction.
  • Thirty-four men died during construction.
  • Spillway capacity is 650,000 cubic feet per second.
  • Lake Oroville can hold 3.484 million acre-feet of water, covers an area of 15,500 acres, and has a shoreline of 167 miles.

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