Bucks Lake: Glittering jewel of the Feather River watershed
Sandy Point lies across the open water, where dozens of waterfowl rest.
Bucks Lake has been a mainstay of recreation and hydropower in Plumas County for about 80 years. Before Bucks Dam was built in 1928, the area was known as Bucks Ranch and was used for grazing cattle and horses.
Prior to its ranching days, Bucks Ranch was part of the Maidu summer hunting and gathering grounds. On the west shore of the lake is an area known as Indian Rocks. Many grinding holes exist on top of the large granite rocks there. Acorns, a staple of the Indians’ diet, were ground into meal inside these holes.
Bucks Creek Powerhouse was commissioned in 1928, after the Feather River and its tributaries were identified as potential sources of hydropower. That’s when the dam was constructed that created the lake.
According to Western Pacific Railroad History Online, Bucks Creek Powerhouse uses water tunneled from Three Lakes, Bucks Creek, Bucks Diversion and Grizzly Creek Reservoirs to generate 65 megawatts of electrical power.
Its 4,786-foot-long penstocks (pipes the water travels through), among the longest in the world, drop the water more than 2,500 feet to spin the waterwheels and ultimately generate power. The penstocks were shipped from Germany through the Panama Canal to the California coast.
Recent visitors to Bucks Lake may have noticed that it looks far different this winter than it has for many years past. Instead of higher water levels and several feet of snow, the ground is nearly bare and the water is much receded from the shore.
Hundreds of tree stumps jut from the lakebed and water like so many blackened headstones, revealing vestiges of the forest that once grew there.
The governor’s Jan. 17 emergency declaration of drought has many people concerned about water rationing, crops failing and an extreme wildfire season.
But despite its current appearance, the water level at Bucks Lake is at 92 percent of the median level for the past 30 years, according to Paul Moreno, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman.
On Jan. 17, the elevation of the lake was 5,123 feet and its capacity was 51,988 acre-feet, or 52.0 TAF (thousand acre-feet) of water.
“Even with historically low levels of precipitation, PG&E’s hydro system will still be able to deliver significant and reliable power to the state throughout 2014 — including peaking power during energy and heat storms this summer,” Moreno said Jan. 22.
He said we are fortunate that much of PG&E’s hydroelectric system, including the Feather and Pitt rivers, receives inflow from underwater aquifers near the southern Cascade mountain range.
Additionally, Moreno said, PG&E buys hydropower from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.
Bucks Lake is a popular year-round recreation destination. Fishing, swimming, boating, waterskiing, camping, biking, wildlife viewing and hiking abound in spring, summer and fall.
Winter recreation opportunities include cross-country and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, 100 miles of groomed snowmobile trails (weather permitting) and ice fishing.
Bucks Lake is part of the vast 2.3-million-acre Feather River watershed, which provides water to more than 23 million Californians for urban, industrial and agricultural uses, according to Feather River Coordinated Resource Management.
About half of the approximately 17-mile shoreline of Bucks Lake is owned by PG&E; the other half is managed by the Forest Service.
Three commercial establishments operate under PG&E commercial leases: Lakeshore Resort, Bucks Lake Marina and Bucks Lake Camp.
Additionally, PG&E has 68 recreational homesite leases on the lake’s south shore, and three additional homesite leases on the south side of the Oroville-Quincy Highway southeast of Haskins Bay.
According to the 2007 report “Bucks Lake Planning Unit, Feather River Watershed,” many of these leases have been held by the same families since the 1930s. Cabin owners are required to maintain their lots and control fuel loads under strict PG&E lease terms.
The Forest Service leases numerous recreation cabin tracts on the west shore of the lake, and manages several campgrounds and day use facilities, such as restrooms, informational kiosks and boat launches.
The 21,000-acre undeveloped Bucks Lake Wilderness Area abuts PG&E property on the east and north shores of the lake. The wilderness area is off limits to motorized vehicles and equipment. The Mill Creek Trail runs along the north and east shorelines and provides trail access to the Pacific Crest Trail, among others.
High water or low, Bucks Lake is a valuable community resource offering residents and visitors alike a wonderful opportunity to enjoy nature.
More information on Bucks Lake is available on multiple websites including buckslake.net and lcp.stewardshipcouncil.org.