After an exceptionally dry 2022, Big Bear Lake nearly hit record-low water levels in early December. And with experts predicting a rare third year of La Niña conditions in 2023, some locals started to express real concerns about how the West’s climate change-fueled megadrought might affect recreation opportunities, wildlife and the economy of a mountain town that draws visitors from throughout Southern California.
But after a series of recent storms, which alternated between rain and snow in the mountains, new data shows Big Bear Lake rose nearly two feet in just one week. The water level is up about three feet since early December, with shoreline that had been been visible for months now hidden under ice-fringed water.
“A huge sigh of relief.”
That’s how Loren Hafen, president of the tourism group Visit Big Bear, described his reaction to the recent storms.
Even with the new water the lake is still 14 and a half feet less than full. That’s about two feet too low to reach one of two public boat launches, or to fill the adjacent Stanfield Marsh Wildlife and Waterfowl Preserve, which has been dry for five years.
Snow melt alone won’t be enough to get it there, said Mike Stephenson, head of the Big Bear Municipal Water District, which manages the lake.
“So we do need quite a bit of precipitation coming up,” he said.
“We are waiting to see what else we get to hopefully have a fuller lake so we can run all of our facilities.”
Big Bear Lake’s water levels rose two feet in one week thanks to recent winter storms. Edges of the lake were thinly iced over Wednesday, Jan. 18, though signs warn visitors to stay away. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Edwards)
Historically, Hafen said, the wettest months are February and March. And there’s a chance of another dusting of snow Thursday. So he’s hopeful the lake might even fill all the way up this year.
Flooding and mudslides have posed problems in recent weeks for two of the three mountain roads leading into Big Bear Valley — particularly in areas along Highway 38 that in recent years were burned by wildfire. But there’s no risk of the man-made lake flooding shore-front homes, no matter how much snow or rain falls, because Stephenson’s team is allowed to release water from the dam at the west end of the lake as soon as it’s within four feet from being full.
The last time the lake was full enough for that to happen was in 2011.
For the past century, the lake has gone through a steady 10-year pattern of filling up, dropping eight or 10 feet during dry years, then filling back up again. The first anomaly came at the start of the current megadrought when, in 2004, the lake dropped more than 16 feet. In late 2018, the lake dropped to its modern low of 18 feet, six inches below capacity. At 20 feet down, Stephenson previously said valley leaders “would all have to put heads together to make sure we still have a lake.”
Last summer, Stephenson feared the lake was on pace to reach or even beat its record low. But some surprise monsoonal rains in August helped level things out, with the lake stopping at a low of 17 feet, four inches in December.
Big Bear Lake not dry, but megadrought means challenges, big ideas
California snowpack skyrockets to two-decade high, putting ‘serious dent’ in drought
How do you harness an epic amount of rain in a water-scarce state? Let it flood, scientists say
California’s snowpack near a decade high. What’s it mean for the drought?
Storm brings snow, some operational delays to Southern California ski resorts
The 100-year pattern still appears unlikely to hold. And winter still could dry up, as it did last year, Hafen noted. But for now, while locals grumble a bit about traffic issues, Hafen said they’re mostly happy the recent storms are bringing skiers and snowboarders and sledders to their businesses.
“Snow is the best billboard, the best marketing you could ever have.”