It’s no surprise, really: Water levels in California’s reservoirs continue to drop as the thirsty state waits for the first sign of fall rains. Still, it’s startling to see the evidence of how far the reservoirs have fallen. Last week, Getty Images photographer Justin Sullivan took an aerial tour of some of the reservoirs, including Lake Oroville. That’s the biggest reservoir in the State Water Project and the second-largest in the state after Lake Shasta.

Take a look at some before and after views of the lake, below, comparing it in July 2011, after a wet winter and copious spring runoff, with the way it looks now.

Just to be clear, the water hasn’t been dropping continuously during the past three drier-than-normal years. For instance, as recently as April 2013, Lake Oroville was roughly 90 percent full. In late May 2013, Folsom Lake, pictured last in this series of images, was about 75 percent full. Both reservoirs fell to low levels during the dry, dry fall of 2013, then recovered a little during late-season rains. And then — much lower than normal in the spring after a season with scarce mountain snow and very little runoff — the plunge to today’s levels began.

Click the arrows on each image below to see the difference.

In 2011, water levels were high near the Enterprise Bridge over Lake Oroville. Now the lake is at 32 percent of capacity.

There’s less room for boats at Bidwell Marina on Lake Oroville.

These views are of the Oroville Dam.

Folsom Lake is currently at 40 percent of its total capacity of 977,000 acre feet.

  • DesertFlower78

    Yikes!!!! Those images REALLY bring the drought frm jst a concept to a real measurable crisis.. These pics should get plastered on billboards all over the state.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at:



Lisa Pickoff-White

Lisa Pickoff-White is KQED's data reporter. Lisa specializes in simplifying complex topics and bringing them to life through compelling visuals, including photography and data visualizations. She previously has worked at the Center for Investigative Reporting and other national outlets. Her work has been honored with awards from the Online News Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and SXSW Interactive.  Follow: @pickoffwhite Email:

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor