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Lake San Antonio Succumbs to Drought

The drought has taken its toll on many aspects of California life. Now it is shutting down a popular southern Monterey County recreation area.   Lake San Antonio will close on July 1st.   The water level on the lake is down to just 4%.

Getting to Lake San Antonio from the north takes you down roads flanked by oak trees, California’s iconic golden hills and not much else.   It all makes the tiny Lockwood Store seem like an oasis. 

“A lot of people stop by and get fishing stuff or ice and anything that they’ll need because there’s not another store around,” says store clerk Karin Loftus.

But over the past two years she’s noticed the number of Lake San Antonio customers dwindle.  And it’s no surprise really when you see what’s left of the lake. 

Monterey County Park Ranger Michael Tozzi stands behind the now closed visitor’s center at San Antonio at a vista point.  “You know you just kind of have to imagine, all of this big green swath that you see here that’s usually all filled with water,” says Tozzi, Ranger Manager at Lake San Antonio.

When it’s full, this manmade lake normally has 15 miles of surface area.  Today it’s down to 1.5.   It looks like a lush green valley  with a pool of water at the end near the dam where houseboats still float.

The water level at the lake started to drop in 2013, and it’s been this bad for about a year. Less water has meant fewer visitors leaving the county to pick up more and more of the costs to operate it.  So earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors decided to close the lake, which includes cabins and about 600 campsites.

“Normally if you go back five, six years ago, you know, this would be hustling and bustling with people.   Yeah,  it’s kind of a ghost town,” says Tozzi.

A ghost town save for two camp sites.  The Miller family from Paso Robles is  settled into one with a camper, patio table and lots of toys for the kids.   Mom Sabrina says they wanted to get one last trip in before the lake closes.

“I grew up camping here actually. I remember as a kid, the amphitheater working, and riding my bikes up and down the road and  everything when there was actually water too. It’s changed a lot,” says Miller.

The lake’s beach is now an empty field like with signs that read “No Diving”.  The one lakeside café is closed.  The boat launches end at the rocky, dry lake bottom.  All of these changes are reminders of why people like to come here.

“It runs the gamut of recreational activities. Most of it is lake based.  Folks are boating and fishing and swimming and doing that kind of thing.  We have a very small percentage of folks use it for hiking and biking and that kind of thing. Usually it’s family vacations and weekend getaways,” says Tozzi.

A lot of that activity stopped when the lake level dropped.  But it all officially ends on July 1st when the park closes to the public indefinitely though the county will still have to maintain it.

“It’s not like a house you can board it up and just walk away from.  It’s so big, it really requires you to exercise it.  We kind of have to artificially make the valves work and turn and do all those kind of things because if you don’t it will suffer even more,” says Tozzi.

Monterey County Director of Parks and Recreation, Mark Mariscal estimates the closure will save the county somewhere between $60,000 to $75,000 a month.  It will also mean some people losing their jobs. 

It’s unclear what it will take to re-open Lake San Antonio though rain would help.  In the meantime, the county will work to continue annual events  at the park like the Lightening in a Bottle Festival and the Wildflower Triathlon.  

County officials are encouraging people to visit neighboring Lake Nacimiento, which is faring better during the drought. 

“We have plenty of water on the surface, and that’s where people recreate anyway,” says Mark Sandoval is General Manager of Monterey Lakes Recreation Company, the concessionaire that runs the lodging, marinas and general stores at both lakes.   

He hopes people will give Lake Nacimiento a try.  “Just give us a shot. I think it’s one of the best lake’s in the state. Even down, it’s still a great lake,” says Sandoval.