BIG BEAR LAKE >> There was a blue heron a few yards away from the Big Bear Marina.
Mallards played in the water near the marina’s office.
“This is pretty sad looking,” said Scott Ruppel, 60, as he sat in front of the marina office on a recent weekday morning.
A frequent lake visitor, Ruppel, a Barstow resident, talked about the grass and other plant life — some green, some not — growing on land once covered by a 3,000 acre lake.
The lake is now more like 2,200 acres, meaning 800 acres are exposed, according to Mike Stephenson, general manager of the Big Bear Municipal Water District.
Six-years of drought has taken its toll on the waterfront of the mountain community that draws visitors from throughout Southern California and beyond, seeking to escape the noise and stress of urban life below.
Big Bear Lake has lost more than half of its water volume since 2011, Stephenson said.
Soon, the dock will need to be moved.
“We are hoping we can make it until winter without moving the dock,” said Nick Norton, who is a captain on the Arrowhead Queen, which provides year-around tours around the lake.
Getting out of the dock, with stiff Santa Ana winds like those blowing in recent days, is a challenge, Norton said. The gap between rocks and the bottom of the boat is much shorter and the Santa Anas tend to push the boat in the direction of the rocks.
Lake Arrowhead has also seen some receding.
The privately owned lake is down slightly more than 10 feet from full, according to Jim Grant, general manager of the Arrowhead Lake Association.
San Bernardino Mountain residents and those who have businesses there frequently say they hope this winter will begin the turnaround from dropping lake levels.
But Ken Clark, an AccuWeather meteorologist based in Rancho Cucamonga, said this winter will be much like last year’s, with half the normal rainfall and temperatures above normal.
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be storms throughout the winter … but it won’t be significant to change the status of the drought,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Last year just 8.56 inches of rain fell during the rainy season, down about half of normal for the months of November through April, which is 16.7 inches for Big Bear Lake, Clark said.
“The door is still open for a wet winter,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in La Cañada Flintridge.
The anticipated La Niña did not materialize, Patzert said, which means a wet year is possible. He did say, however, that the “smart money is betting on a dry winter.”
Typically, La Niñas, — cold waters in the eastern Pacific — follow El Niños, which tend to bring above-average rainfall.
For the past 133 years at Big Bear Lake, 6 of 10 years are less than the annual average of 37 inches, Patzert said.
Because both the San Bernardino Mountain lakes are both relatively small, they can — and have been — recharged to full capacity with one good rainy season, Patzert said.
San Bernardino resident Lee Baker, 65, is hoping for rain, he said from the shore during a recent trip to the lake to fish.
“I bet I find that lure I lost here a few years ago,” Baker joked.
“A lot of our old fishing spots are dry,” said Matt Baker, 32, of Redlands, who has been fishing in Big Bear Lake with his father since childhood.
Real estate concerns
Many mountain residents with lakefront properties have watched receding water levels strand their boat docks.
The forest (from the north side of Big Bear Lake) seems to get closer and closer every day,” said Audrey Holt, a Houston resident who has been helping her 92-year-old mother in her lakefront house on Big Bear Lake’s southern shore.
Several of Holt’s neighbors have boat docks that are about 100 yards from the water.
The marina was moved farther into the water last year, said Steve Fengler, owner of the marina business.
“Some of the back bays and narrow channels are dry, but the main part of the lake, what people use to water ski and for other recreation, is still like a full lake,” Fengler said. Business-wise, the marina is “having a better year than last year and we are four feet down.”
Mountain real estate agents look at the downturn in lake levels as a familiar cycle, one that can be quickly reversed with a wet winter.
“This kind of thing happens, but we always come back,” said Bob Angilella, a long-time Big Bear Lake real estate salesman.
“It doesn’t affect values: Lakefront properties are lakefront properties,” he said.
Looking over the past 25 years, mountain lake levels have not played a significant factor in home sales values, said John Karevoll, a real estate analyst for DQ News, who lives in Running Springs.
Nevertheless, “this is probably not the year to be selling lakefront property,” said Cindy Pearson, a sales associate with Gilligan Log Homes Real Estate in Big Bear Lake.
Most owners with lakefront properties are not in a position where they must sell, Pearson said.
“I think this will be our year to get rain,” she said.
Mountain lakes facts
Lake Arrowhead: Down 10.8 feet from full
Big Bear Lake: Down 16.25 feet from full
Acreage: Big Bear Lake now 2,200 acres, down from 3,000 acres when full.
The exposed land, 800 acres, is as large as Lake Arrowhead.
More than half the water in Big Bear Lake has vanished since 2011.
The decline in Big Bear Lake’s water level is the steepest in history.
Sources: Big Bear Municipal Water District; Arrowhead Lake Association