High Sierra Regatta canceled by low water at Huntington Lake

The Fresno BeeApril 2, 2014 

Sailboats with flying spinnakers approach the finish line during the 2013 High Sierra Regatta at Huntington Lake.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE

For the first time in six decades, the High Sierra Regatta sailing competition held each summer at Huntington Lake is being canceled -- another casualty of the drought that is gripping Central California.

The cancellation of the venerable boat races are symbolic of a summer season that is anticipated to be a struggle for lakeside businesses, particularly marinas with boat slips and moorings that are likely to remain high and dry.

The two-weekend High Sierra Regatta typically attracts about 300 skippers and crews from throughout California and the West, as well as their families and thousands of spectators, to the lake each summer. But the Fresno Yacht Club, which organizes the regatta, this week announced the cancellation of the 2014 event, which was to have been the 61st annual event. Three straight years of drought will reduce Huntington Lake to levels that are too low for launching boats not only for the High Sierra Regatta, but for other sailing competitions throughout the summer as well.

"There are three races each weekend of our regatta, and in the entire history we've only had two races cancelled because of low wind or other things," said Daniel Irwin, a CPA who is the Fresno Yacht Club's commodore this year. "It's been a really reliable venue."

This year's High Sierra Regatta was scheduled for July 12-13 and July 19-20. "But as soon as the governor declared a drought emergency for this year, we were thinking that all bets were off" on being able to stage the 2014 regatta, Irwin said.

Through the first two years of drought, Southern California Edison has managed to keep Huntington Lake relatively full, Irwin said. "But it's different this year, with drought on top of drought on top of drought."

Huntington Lake, with a capacity of about 90,000 acre-feet, is but one piece of Edison's Big Creek Hydroelectric Project -- a collection of mountain reservoirs, dams and powerhouses that includes Edison and Shaver lakes. But this year, Huntington is expected to be about only one-third full, said Calvin Rossi, an Edison spokesman.

"Huntington Lake is unique in that a lot of the docks there are stationary; they can't rise and fall with the season like other lakes," including Shaver, Rossi said. "The docks are above the water as we speak."

That spells trouble for resorts and other businesses along the shore.

"This summer will be grave," said Nancy Omachi, who with her husband Roy owns the Huntington Lake Resort on the western end of the lake. "There are regattas every weekend, not just the High Sierra. But to have these races, you not only have to get the boats in the water but keep them in the water."

Omachi said her summer-season resort has 70 boat slips and moorings that represent about one-third of her income. "And our docks are not floating docks, so even if we wanted to move them, we can't," she said. The resort's restaurant usually gets a lot of business from visiting sailors, "but all those sailors who won't be coming up here won't be eating."

Gabrielle Kant, who operates the year-round Lakeshore Resort on the eastern end of the lake, agreed that this summer could be "devastating" -- especially coming off a winter without much snow and last summer, when wildfires kept visitors away from the lake. "It's been ugly, like one slap right after the other," Kant said.

"We rent snowmobiles, but we haven't had any snow," Kant added. "Last year we were kicking butt in the summer, then we had the Aspen fire and everyone freaked out and wouldn't come to the mountains, so we lost the end of July and August."

Kant and Omachi agreed that a key to salvaging the summer will be to make sure people know there's more to Huntington Lake than sailing.

"We have to come up with other things besides the lake experience," Omachi said. "There's lots to do: stargazing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding. ... People can go kayaking or canoeing. But the big boats won't be able to be out on the lake at all."

Kant, in fact, has a strict no-refund policy for cancellations precisely because the area surrounding the mountain lake affords other recreational activities. "There's still plenty for people to enjoy for them to honor their reservations. ... I can't just send everyone their money back because if I did, I'd be out of business."

The summertime residents of cabins and condos at Huntington Lake are rallying to support the businesses by promoting the area's overall recreational appeal. Chris Oberti of the Huntington Lake Association -- a group of owners of cabins permitted by the U.S. Forest Service -- is organizing an April 21 meeting to brainstorm ways to keep the lakeside businesses alive.

"We can see 10,000 to 15,000 people just for the regatta events. It's a big deal, an important part of the economy," Oberti said.

Without the sailboats, however, "we want to look at a marketing plan and teach people that there's more opportunities for recreation and that the lake is open for business," Oberti added.

Oberti said the cabin owners, resorts, camps, condo owners and other denizens of the lake area want to make sure all those lakeside businesses are viable. The cabin and condo owners rely on those businesses for their services and amenities, "and they are definitely something that we have to support because we all have a vested interest in that lake."

The association's April 21 meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at the University Square Hotel (formerly the Piccadilly Inn University) at 4961 N. Cedar Ave., near California State University, Fresno. Oberti said the meeting is open to the public.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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