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NORTH BEND - Against the sunny, azure sky that has become commonplace this winter, it's possible to see the remains of a long-dead town once buried beneath the waters of Rattlesnake Lake.
The rainy season has been atypically dry this year, and each day without rain is another day the water level in the lake lowers. Seattle Public Utilities officials, who oversee the lake, said it is currently at an elevation of 862.8 feet, compared to its usual annual average of 905 feet.
Rattlesnake Lake is fed by Chester Morse Lake, which is part of the Cedar River watershed that supplies water to Seattle and many parts of King County. Seattle Public Utilities direct the release of water from Chester Morse Lake by lowering the levels of a storage area, called the Masonry Pool, which provides water to Rattlesnake Lake through seepage. The soil between the dam and Rattlesnake Lake is loosely packed because it was pushed up by a glacier thousands of years ago, creating the seepage.
Currently, Rattlesnake Lake's levels are so low that the foundations from the former town of Moncton, which lies beneath the lake, are showing, as are old-growth cedar stumps that typically peek through the lake's surface.
The Puget Sound area has received 5.24 inches of rain since Jan. 1, according to measurements taken at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, compared to the average amount of 10.74 inches. This year's snow pack is only at 65 percent of its normal volume, and stream flows have declined. Gov. Gary Locke last week officially declared a drought emergency because water levels are at their lowest since 1977.
Rattlesnake Lake is low for a reason: Officials have restricted its water supply so the Cedar River watershed, which supplies water to both people and fish, will not be compromised if the drought continues.
"What we do, particularly in a year like this, with lack of rainfall, is we can control and hold back the amount of water so we don't lose water to Rattlesnake Lake," said Marie Ruby of Seattle Public Utilities.
Approximately 1.3 million people are supplied by the Cedar River watershed, as are Lake Washington, the Chittenden Locks and several species of fish. In addition, Seattle uses water from Chester Morse lake to produce electricity.
Moncton is Rattlesnake Lake's little secret. The lake didn't always exist. It was formed in 1914 to 1915 after water seeped through the hill when the Masonry Dam was built to wall off Chester Morse Lake. Rattlesnake Lake formed after water flooded Moncton. A small lake, referred to as "rainy season lake" had always filled up in the middle of town, but within two months, the town had to be evacuated.
"Rattlesnake Lake will go back up - there's no doubt that it'll go back up," said Celese Brune, public education program specialist for the watershed and Seattle Public Utilities. "Right now, the forecasting is that we will have a good chance of filling up the Masonry Pool and Rattlesnake Lake. As storms come, we will capture water through Masonry Pool and it will fill up again, as will Rattlesnake."
Many longtime watershed employees remarked they've never seen the water so low in Rattlesnake Lake - not since the late summer drought of 1992. Seattle Public Utility officials said the lake has only dropped to this level seven times in the past 70 years, and of those it refilled six times.
While Rattlesnake Lake's low levels should not alarm Seattle water users, it could cause disappointment in anglers who are waiting to catch rainbow trout. The lake is allowed to lower because it is not a primary regional water source, and instead serves recreational uses. This means water levels might not not be raised to stock fish for the upcoming season.
This year's trout season at the lake could be delayed or even cancelled because of the lake's level. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) usually stocks Rattlesnake Lake with 3-ounce "catchable" rainbow trout in mid-April, with opening day for fishing the last day in April.
Low water levels are not good for stocking because it reduces fish habitat, stocking trucks aren't able to get through the mud and anglers have a tough time getting close enough to the water to fish.
Stocking will not occur unless water levels rise before May, and at this time, WDFW officials are not making any promises.
"We're very concerned about the water level," said Mark Downen, WDFW inland fish biologist.
Fish cannot be transferred to the lake in late summer months, either, because the water temperature is too high for them to adapt. The drought conditions could force WDFW to change how, or if, it stocks the lake.
"If you've got less fishing but more fish at the end of the season, you end up having to hold those fish over the winter. Then we may seriously have to rethink how we manage fish in Rattlesnake Lake," Downen said.
He added that it would be unfortunate if the lake cannot be stocked.
"Rattlesnake provides a unique opportunity for a quality trout fishery in a relatively undeveloped lake," he said. "The catch rates tend to be higher in a smaller lake, and people don't have to own a very expensive motorized boat to go out and take advantage of that opportunity.
In addition to the regular-sized hatchery trout, the WDFW was going to stock Rattlesnake Lake with 1- to 3-pound triploid trout, which are trophy-size sterile rainbow trout.
"I was really excited to get those big fish into Rattlesnake, and I'm kind of dissapointed that it's going this way," Downen added.