A big winter snowpack filled most lakes and reservoirs in Central Oregon, but not all of them. Crescent Lake is puttering along at 20% of capacity, prompting questions about why the popular lake near Willamette Pass is so low despite the big winter.
“Normally, the water is 100 feet up the bank and it’s a lot deeper so that we can just back right in and launch,” said Chris Calavan of La Pine. “You’ve got to get out there a ways right now and you’ve got to put it in 4-wheel drive, or you are not getting out.”
Crescent Lake is a large natural lake with a reservoir added on top of it. During droughts, the reservoir is drawn down and the water level drops to the level of the natural lake.
The total water elevation change is about 20 feet. But along the gradual shorelines of this large basin, it looks like the lake is disappearing.
“Crescent Lake holds water for the Tumalo Irrigation District. It holds 86,050-acre feet,” said Jeremy Giffin, Deschutes Basin Watermaster. “It’s actually a very big reservoir for the size of the drainage. It takes several wet years to fill that reservoir and it takes several dry years to draft it back down. We’ve been in several dry years.”
The day we visited Crescent Lake, we encountered the Calavan family playing in Tranquil Cove on the lake’s southwest shore. They launched their boat and were inflating floaty toys when we chatted with them.
“It’s my son’s sixth birthday, Cash, this is what he chose. We gave him the option to do anything he wanted to do today — go to the ocean, to the movies, to go bowling and this is his choice, to come to the Crescent Lake,” Calavan said.
Crescent Lake’s fluctuating water levels bring mixed blessings. When the water is low, there’s more exposed beach and shoreline for people to enjoy.
However, boat launching gets a little tricky.
“Last fall, when I took the boat out of the lake, I had to push the truck out of the lake with the boat,” said Tom Wheeler from Bend. “The low water ramp is like a last-ditch resort.”
Crescent Lake fills slowly. Just two year-round creeks flow into the lake from a very small drainage basin.
“Today, we are sitting about 16,000-acre feet. Last year we made it up to about 18,000-acre feet,” Giffin said. “This year is a little better based on the snowpack. I anticipate that we’ll top out at about 20,000-acre feet on Crescent Lake this year.”
Visitor numbers decline as the lake level drops. That means more elbow room to explore the cabins and lodge at Crescent Lake Resort, the half dozen Forest Service campgrounds, day-use areas and trails leading into the nearby Diamond Peaks Wilderness.
“There’s a special fascination with this place,” Tom Wheeler said.
Wheeler has been visiting Crescent Lake since 1958 when the dam that created the reservoir on top of the lake was built.
“There are some places like Odell that are pretty cool but this… the water’s blue all the time. It doesn’t get the turnover like they do at Odell. You are high enough that the air is clean. I’m out of the pollen of Bend. It’s just a really special place,” Wheeler said.