Folsom Lake: Stark, Wondrous Landscape Amid Drought

Thanks to the drought, a visit to Folsom Lake right now is a chance to walk through California history.

The big reservoir on the American River northeast of Sacramento is nearing its lowest level since it first filled in the autumn of 1955. In what we'll hesitantly call a "normal" year, the lake level will decline as water is pumped out to surrounding communities or released downstream. Even so, it's still apparent you're looking at a lake, even if it's in reduced circumstances, waiting for replenishment from winter rains and spring runoff.

But the last couple of years have featured meager rain and the lowest spring runoff ever recorded. What used to be Folsom Lake has been transformed. Decades of inundation have drowned and scoured away most vegetation. The denuded lakebed is stark and wondrous, a sort of desertscape, a draw for locals and out-of-towners who have never seen anything quite like it.

"It's kind of surreal," Dan Schafer told KQED video producer Adam Grossberg. "It's really kind of cool and everything, but you're miles from the shoreline, and you just can't envision it filling up. But we're praying for that El Niño."

Because Folsom Lake sits at the outlet of a watershed that's fabulously productive in wet years, it can fill up with surprising speed. After it reached its nadir, near the end of the terrible drought of 1976-1977, the rains came. It took a little more than six months to go from record low to nearly full.


Although we've been hearing a lot of hopeful talk about El Niño, we don't yet know what this winter holds in the way of rain and snow. But maybe we'll see an omen this weekend: Rain and snow are in the forecast, and maybe that will be the start of the Big Refill.