Dam drought

Normally underwater, this area of Folsom Lake is dry due to the drought conditions in California


California is facing serious drought issues; rainfall is significantly below annual averages. With such little rain and snow over the last 12 months, the water levels at Folsom Lake have been dropping to historic low levels. The levels are low enough to generate new nicknames for this water recreation area: “Folsom Creek” and “Folsom Pond” are a couple of examples.

I spent the afternoon checking out the new shorelines at Folsom Lake. I entered the lake area at the Browns Ravine gate. I was a bit surprised at the line of cars waiting to pay the $12 State Parks Day Use Fee. Apparently the media coverage of the low lake levels has inspired lots of like-minded visitors.

The big attraction at the Browns Ravine area is the exposure of the remnants of Mormon Island, a small town that had its heyday during the Gold Rush. Mormon Island (which is not an island) was covered up with water when the Folsom Dam was completed in 1955. The low water levels have given unusual access to amateur archeologists to poke around some of the ruins.

The hike from the parking lot to Mormon Island is about one and half miles.
Hundreds of tree stumps are seeing sunlight after 50 years.

Mormon Island is about a 1.5 mile walk from the parking area. The area was pretty crowded with families, dogs, strollers and mountain bikes. The pilgrimage out to the ruins was a bit surreal; it reminded me of a spiritual migration. Some building foundations were still visible, along with the remnants of an old access road. Apparently, the main part of the town is still under water, farther out from the dry sections.

An old boat motor lays on dry ground.
Visitors check out the foundations of some structures of Mormon Island.
Lake water levels are below the levels of drought year 1976-77.
Looking back toward El Dorado Hills, Mormon Island is getting well-inspected.

After spending some time near the ruins, I drove around to the other side of Folsom Dam to the Beals Point area. (The Day Use Fee allows access to all areas of Folsom Lake on the same day.) Beals Point features a campground and beach area. Well, a beach area when there’s water around. Not this year, though.

The Beals Point area was very quiet with very few people. The terrain was different from Browns Ravine, almost lunar-like in places. Most interesting to me was the view of the Folsom Dam. It was eerie to see how low the water level was on the wet side of the dam, exposing parts of the structure not normally visible. It felt rather dystopian, like I was  wandering around after a massive catastrophe.

The view of Folsom Lake from Beals Point.
The terrain appears moon-like.
Two people walk along the new shoreline at Folsom Lake. El Dorado Hills is in the background.
Looking back up toward the parking area of Beals Point – this is normally underwater.
The water cannot reach the eight spillways on the dam. The three vertical tubes are intakes for the hydroelectric operations of the dam.
Lots of fishing lures are probably hiding in those rocks.
Some remnants of structure are exposed for the first time in decades.

I remembered a visit to Folsom Dam in the mid-1970’s when several of us photographers were given an inside tour of Folsom Dam. Since this was pre-9/11, access was much more generous. I’m sure now it would be considered a national security risk to allow people to wander around the bowels of a dam and take photographs.

We had visited the control room, walked around the inside and outside of the generating building and had access to the inside of the dam structure. One of the generating turbines was shut down for maintenance and we were allowed to walk around the inside of the water tube. One of the dam workers thought it would be funny to drop a large piece of lumber inside the tube. The explosive sound and persistent echo was startling. Even though the tube was dry, I think some of us left some moisture behind. He was the only guy laughing, if I recall correctly. Dam worker.

During the mid-1970’s, I was able to tour the inside of Folsom Dam. This is the turbine room with the three hydroelectric turbines.
The control room inside Folsom Dam (c. 1975).
These water tubes supply water to the turbines for generating power.
Looking down the outlet side of the dam.
Inside the bowels of the dam…

If the water levels continue to drop, I plan to revisit the area and take more photos. As more parts of the dam are exposed, we will have the opportunity to see things that were never expected to be visible again.

– + –

7 thoughts on “Dam drought

  1. Hi Ron, wonderful post. I am working on a project about water conservation and will be going to Folsom Lake this week to photograph the low levels as well as the damn. Any pointers?
    Thanks, Kevin


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s