California's Drought Exposes Long-Hidden Detritus

Feb 22, 2015
Originally published on February 23, 2015 9:15 am

The message from park rangers, amateur metal detectors and regular fisherman at California's Lake Perris is unanimous: The water is lower than they've ever seen it.

The state's severe ongoing drought has affected everything from agriculture to urban life. Here, the impact is made visible. As the water level has dropped, sunken treasures, trash and forgotten boats have risen above the surface.

Last fall, rangers at the Lake Perris State Recreation Area and reservoir began spotting clumps of massive tractor tires peeking above the water on one section of the lake.

One park employee refers to the dozens of tires as "the serpent," because of the curving profile the tires create against the water, kind of like a Loch Ness monster made of rubber. According to state park superintendent John Rowe, the appearance of "the serpent" — or the "tire reef," as it's more officially known — was not a surprise.

"It's been on all of our maps to begin with," Rowe says.

When Lake Perris Dam was built in the early 1970s, according to Rowe, old and worn-out tires from the heavy construction equipment were left over. So the state Department of Fish and Wildlife placed the tires in the water as a habitat for bass.

For 40 years, the tire reef fulfilled that mandate. The Riverside Press-Enterprise first reported the appearance of the tires, and local fishermen told the paper that the man-made reef had been a great fishing spot.

Under normal circumstances, the tires would sit deep under water.

"Typically, at high pool, that tire reef is under 30 feet of water, [or] 35 feet of water," says Rowe.

But the water level is now more than 40 vertical feet below normal.

The drought is not solely responsible for that dramatic drop: Problems with the dam forced the water level down about 25 feet in 2005. The drought is responsible for the remainder.

That receding water level has also revealed at least eight sunken, and forgotten, boats.

"All of the boats we're finding," Rowe says, are "well over 12 years old," and they likely went unreported at the time of sinking.

"We get a lot of boats, and a lot of trash, lawn chairs, stuff like that," says Officer Javier Garza, a ranger at Lake Perris.

Despite the drought, the recreation area remains open to boaters, fishermen and the occasional amateur metal detectorist.

Marty Gabriel, a retired truck driver, often comes down to Lake Perris with a metal detector and scoop, and has been visiting the lake since the early 1990s. He says the drought has "cut down on the volume of people down here." But despite the expanding shoreline — which you might think is fertile territory for metal detecting — Gabriel says the treasures beneath the sand aren't that much more interesting.

He prefers the old, fuller Lake Perris.

"It is what it is," he says. "We definitely need rain, and they need to fix the dam to make this place usable again."

Dam repairs are currently underway, but park superintendent John Rowe says Lake Perris also needs the cooperation of Californians and mother nature.

"The message is conservation," he says, "and pray for rain."

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That is the sound of park ranger Javier Garza driving a boat across Southern California's Lake Perris. It's a man-made reservoir and recreation area. And it's like a lot of the rest of California right now - getting dryer every day in the state's long-lasting drought. As that water level has gone down, it's exposed some surprises. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has the story.

JAVIER GARZA: It is pretty windy today, so it might be a little rough.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Officer Garza took me out on Lake Perris on a hot, windy day here in Southern California. I'd asked to go out because all kinds of sunken - I don't want to call it treasure, but just sunken stuff has recently popped up.

GARZA: So this is probably about the closest we can get without running the risk of hitting something.

DREISBACH: We get close to the far side of the lake, where clumps of massive, eight-foot tractor tires stacked next to each other are peeking out of the water. One park employee calls it the serpent because it has a kind of rubber Loch Ness monster look to it. There are lots of tires - one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine - so many I actually lose count - dozens and dozens of huge tractor tires piled up here on the beach.

The story goes that when Lake Perris Dam was built in the early 1970s, there was a bunch of leftover construction equipment, including old worn-out tractor tires. So Fish and Wildlife decided to put them under about 35 feet of water as a habitat for bass. Then problems with the dam in 2005 meant the water level had to be lowered about 25 feet. Then came the drought. Water use has gone up making the water level drop at least 18 more feet.

When do you remember first seeing these come out?

GARZA: It was probably at the end of the season last year during the summertime - like September sometime.

DREISBACH: Garza says it's not just tires they're finding.

GARZA: You get a lot of boats and, you know, a lot of trash, lawn chairs, tables, stuff like that, so - tractor tires.

DREISBACH: In fact, rangers have found at least eight sunken boats, including one with tags from the 1970s. If they can't get the boats out, dive teams move the boats farther underwater - more habitat for the bass. It's pretty quiet out on the beach, but there are a few guys metal detecting or fishing. Have you got anything today?

STANYAN: Oh, no, I haven't. I've gotten a couple of hits on that particular rod, but no takers, just lookers, I guess, you know? (Laughter).

DREISBACH: This is Stanyan. He's retired and sitting by the water's edge with two fishing rods.

STANYAN: I've fished this lake solidly for a good 26 years.

DREISBACH: Oh, really, that long?

STANYAN: Yeah, I - when it was actually a, I mean, a decent lake where the water level was normal.

DREISBACH: Where did it used to be?

STANYAN: It used to be, gosh, right up - I'd say halfway up the rock ledge there.

DREISBACH: He points more than a dozen yards up the shore. That means this spot where he's sitting on the beach was once deep underwater, too. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.