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City, County Politicians Squabbling Over Lake Morena Reservoir

Evening Edition

The city and county of San Diego are battling a war of words over Lake Morena reservoir, a city-owned water source in East County.

Aired 1/21/14 on KPBS News.

The city and county of San Diego are battling a war of words over Lake Morena reservoir, a city-owned water source in East County.

In 1989, the city of San Diego began to drain water from one of its reservoirs, Lake Morena, which sits 50 miles east of the city in the tiny Lake Morena Village. Residents of the village were so outraged that the city was ruining their nearby lake that one woman wrote a protest song to the tune of "Summertime Blues," calling it "Lake Morena vs. S.D. City Ditty."

"Ya' know the eagles are your symbol and we gotta protect them," it went. "We can't let them suffer or go to extinction. The mosquitoes and the mud will drown them at first. And what about the odor — our health will be the worst."

Neither the song, the sentiment, or a lawsuit the residents filed did much good. The city drained the lake anyway.

Almost a quarter-century later, the city is siphoning the water again in an attempt to curtail water rates. The backcountry residents, who boat and fish on the lake and run businesses from the recreation, are just as unhappy. Their war of words wages as the lake shrinks daily.

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob has taken up the cause as she has before, hoping her arguments about fish dying and empty firefighting helicopters might be persuasive. She briefly won a battle when then-Mayor Bob Filner agreed to stop the draining. But interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria took a hard line. He said the water is his city's property and he has every right to take it.

This fight is over a small reservoir that accounts for less than 3 percent of San Diego's total water supply. But as drought conditions close in on the San Diego region and the Southern California water wars head to court, it’s clear water is becoming more and more worth fighting for. The tug of war over Lake Morena shows how desperate for every drop the city has become.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

The edge of Lake Morena reservoir on January 3. On that date, the lake level had lowered by about 1.5 feet, a portion of the total 30 feet of water that will be lost.

War of Words

The plan is for the city of San Diego to withdraw 2 billion gallons from Lake Morena over about five months, lowering the lake's level by about 30 feet.

Jacob warns the withdrawal could hinder firefighting abilities, use up water reserves, cause a massive fish die-off and stop money flowing to the campground and boat rentals on the lake, which would by extension damage the small economy of Lake Morena Village. She has pleaded her case in the media and is working behind the scenes to convince city officials to stop taking the water.

When the drainage first started in early 2013, Jacob asked then-Mayor Filner to stop it.

Filner agreed, but six months later he had resigned in disgrace.

Jacob then took her fight to Gloria. They met, and letters exchanged afterward show Jacob making her argument one last time (“At the very least, I am hopeful that you can see the importance of keeping Lake Morena at its most maximum level during this heighten time [sic] of fire risk”) and Gloria holding firm, only offering to stop or lessen the drawdown if the county would pay the city for Lake Morena’s water instead.

Gloria said the drawdown would resume on Dec. 1, 2013.

Jacob says she will also make her case to the next mayor, who will be elected next month. But she acknowledges she can do little else but plead, because the city has the legal right to take water from the lake. The county leases Lake Morena from the city, and its lease agreement contains a key sentence: "The city at any time may withdraw water from the water pool on said property."

A 1990 legal finding also says the city does not need a California Environmental Quality Act review to take water from the lake.

The lake has been drained significantly multiple times, and each time there was uproar from Jacob and nearby residents. Each time, there was nothing they could do to stop it.

How The Water Is Drained

Photo by Katie Schoolov

The outlet tower in Lake Morena reservoir has a small trap door that the city of San Diego uses to drain the lake.

In 1912, a dam was built on Lake Morena by a private water company, and two years later the city of San Diego bought the dam. The lake has been a city-owned reservoir — one of several not actually within San Diego’s borders — since.

A tall cement tower sits in Lake Morena next to the dam. To take water from the lake, a city employee boats out to the tower, climbs to its top, then gets inside and climbs to the bottom to open a small trap door.

That door allows water to flow out of the lake and through the dam to the other side, into a small stream. Lake Morena's water trickles through the creek for about 7 miles to another city reservoir, Barrett Reservoir, and from there to the city's water treatment plant at Otay Reservoir.

Heavy rains in 2004 and then the 2007 wildfires damaged the infrastructure used to move water from Barrett to Otay, which meant no water could be taken from Lake Morena. The city says the last significant drawdown of the lake was in 2001.

Lake Morena Village residents might have gotten used to living next to a full lake, but it couldn't last. Once repairs were finished on the Barrett-Otay conduit, the city started moving water from Barrett to Otay to make room for Lake Morena water. In 2012, the city was ready to take water from Lake Morena again.

San Diego Says It Needs Water

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Water flows from Lake Morena's dam into a creek, which it follows for about 7 miles to Barrett Reservoir.

The city's argument for taking the water is simple: It's all about the money.

When the city’s public utilities department presented plans in November 2013 for a water rate increase, they were assuming they would be taking water from Lake Morena, said Brent Eidson, the department's external affairs deputy director. If the city loses Lake Morena as a water source, Eidson says, rates would go up even more.

Only 15 percent of the city's water comes from Lake Morena and eight other city-owned reservoirs — the remaining 85 percent is bought from the San Diego County Water Authority.

Even though such a small amount of water is coming from Lake Morena, its supply is still important because reservoir water is much cheaper than water bought from the water authority, Eidson said.

“The water that we’d take from Lake Morena is about $5.1 million worth of water,” he said.

Public Safety Threats

Jacob says her biggest concern about the drawdown is over public safety.

"When you reduce the water in the lake to a mud puddle, then you're reducing the ability of fire-fighting aircraft from the air to scoop up water," she said.

Capt. Mike Mohler, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said he hadn't heard about the Lake Morena drawdown, but he wasn’t worried. There are “plenty of other water sources” nearby to make up for the lost reservoir water, he said.

Jacob warns that Lake Morena's water should be saved for emergencies, and likens the city’s water plan to its financial management.

“When the city looks at the water in Lake Morena, they're looking at a one-time resource, they're looking at money, one time,” she said. “Once that's gone, it's gone. That's a poor way to budget. And that's one of the big problems with the city and its finances.”

The city says not to worry, the lake will be replenished by rain. But Rebecca Schwartz, a conservationist with environmental organization San Diego Audubon Society said the region is entering another dry year “so we should not be drawing down our emergency water storage.”

Environmental Damage

Jacob is also concerned about the environmental impacts of the drawdown. She said the last time the lake was drawn down significantly, there was a massive fish die-off.

Newspaper archives show fish did die after the 2001 drawdown. But Russell Black, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said before this most recent drawdown, the county set up an aeration system that would give fish more oxygen. He said he's not expecting a large scale fish die-off this time, but even if some fish perish, there won't be larger environmental impacts.

San Diego Audubon’s Schwartz says past fish kills suggest there will also be an impact to wildlife this time.

Local Impact

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Mathaey Nisso, the owner of Oak Shores Malt Shop near Lake Morena, rings up a customer.

Mathaey Nisso owns the Oak Shores Malt Shop, a small market and deli a short distance from the lake. As he stood at the cash register ringing up beer for fishermen and candy for kids, he said he's worried a declining number of visitors will hurt his business.

"People come in and look at the lake, and the water is very low," he said. "Next time, people won't come here fishing because there's no water. People here are worried for their businesses because people don't come in up here."

The county parks department estimates that last year camping and fishing at Lake Morena attracted more than 100,000 visitors and generated $380,000 for the county. Jacob says if the lake is depleted, those numbers will drop significantly.

'That Changes Everything'

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Ramon Guerra waits for his friends in a rented boat on Lake Morena.

On the first weekend of the new year, San Diegan Ramon Guerra and a group of young friends arrived at Lake Morena for a camping trip. They rented a boat at the lake, packed some beers and headed out to try fishing.

Guerra didn't know water was being drained from the lake, and when he was told, he didn't like the idea.

"That means less area for fishing," he said. "That's the main reason why we came here, so if there's less fishing spots, then what's the point? I'd rather go to some other places."

But when Guerra found out the lake would supply some of his own drinking water, he changed his mind completely.

"Oh wow, that changes everything," he said. "Now I'm actually concerned. I guess I'd rather have drinking water than a fishing spot."

As water becomes scarcer, environmentalists warn more reservoirs could be drained, leaving all of us to choose more often whether we'd like drinking water or a fishing spot.

This story was a collaboration between KPBS and its partner inewsource.

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | January 21, 2014 at 7:36 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

the more politicians squabble, the less gets done.

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Avatar for user 'laplayaheritage'

laplayaheritage | January 21, 2014 at 9:14 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

The County of San Diego has at least $1 Billion in the Reserves siting in the bank. The County of San Diego can afford to pay the City $5.1 million for the water in Lake Morena.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 21, 2014 at 10:14 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

Laplaya, the county board of crooks need that money for their slush funds.

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Avatar for user 'Cody'

Cody | January 21, 2014 at 10:59 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

I love Lake Morena. But can you imagine the public outcry if the county bought that water? And what about the next time the City wants to draw it down? Should the County step in then too? We are in a very bad drought, I don't think Gloria has it out for Lake Morena.

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Avatar for user 'Jacumbabirder'

Jacumbabirder | January 21, 2014 at 2:21 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

The County needs to spring for the $5.1 million. Paying for the water would mean that the County would own the first (bottom) number of feet. The City would own the water above that elevation and could drain it off as it saw fit only above that level. But would never take the water level below that level. The article did not state the water elevation of the lake as it exists today.

Its frustrating that we, the far back county residents, get sent the worst of the sex offenders on the one hand, and the other hand the City wants to grab our resources - both actions making our region crappy. So I guess we're suppose to say "Thank you" for treating us so nice.

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Avatar for user 'Claire Trageser'

Claire Trageser, KPBS Staff | January 21, 2014 at 9:32 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

Jacumbabirder, thanks for your comment. You're right that the current water elevation would have been helpful: it started at about 115 feet before the drawdown, and is now probably at around 105 feet. There were so many small details in this story that I edited out some for clarity, but this fact would have given a better sense of the city's plan.

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Avatar for user 'Cody'

Cody | January 22, 2014 at 7:39 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

Jacumba - the more I think about it, the more I like that idea. What about evaporation? And, does any water flow out of the reservoir on an everyday basis?

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Avatar for user 'dvhoran'

dvhoran | January 22, 2014 at 7:56 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

The numbers are striking in this story. Two billion gallons of water will be withdrawn over about five months. The City of San Diego wastewater recycling project, which has been very well proven to be safe and cost effective, would provide anywhere from 15 million to 100 million gallons of drinking water per day, depending on the size of the plant. Taking the lowest possible estimate: two billion divided by 15 million means that, if approval for construction of a full-scale potable water reuse plant at the existing North City reclamation plant, that plant would produce the same amount of water to be drawn down from Lake Morena in... wait for it... just under five months. The potable reuse facility would not be a one-shot deal, either. It would continue operating for many years, producing at the very least two billion gallons of drinking water every five months. So the question becomes: Since millions of dollars have been spent to build a small-scale demonstration plant that has proven the efficacy and safety of potable water reuse, why the heck are we not moving forward with a much larger plant now?

The Poseidon plant under construction right now in Carlsbad will desalinate about 50 million gallons of water per day in North County, so why is San Diego taking short-sighted measures such as draining remote emergency reservoirs while making no equivalent progress on the construction of a water reuse plant that will provide the city with much-needed drinking water, create high-paying construction jobs, help to stabilize the city's future water supply, and reduce the amount of not-fully-processed wastewater that the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant is pumping into the Pacific Ocean?

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | January 22, 2014 at 7:58 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

If there isn't enough water then the price needs to rise. Let us hope we can fast track some of those desalination plants.

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Avatar for user 'laplayaheritage'

laplayaheritage | January 24, 2014 at 10:25 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

In general, surface water evaporates into thin air from San Diego County backcountry Lakes and Reserviors at the annual rate of -4 feet.

To keep the water level at Lake Morena steady, to counter natural evaporation, annually the County of San Diego has to pay for an additional 4 feet of water.

The County is more than rich, and can easily afford to fund the solution for the unincorporated areas of the County.

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Avatar for user 'writerink'

writerink | January 27, 2014 at 7:45 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

Despicable that the City would kill fish and ruin a town's economy by draining Lake Morena when the City hasn't bothered to impose any mandatory water restrictions first to avoid this need. Why aren't they restricting washing cars in driveways or how many days you can water your lawns? They'd rather just kill wildlife and destroy a community. Those fish that die are food for other wildlife - birds and mammals that have come to rely on this lake. And what about residents and merchants? This is one more example of a selfish city mentality that screws over the back country just like is happening with monster wind turbines and thousands of solar panels scraping bare wetlands that the county is approving. I'm sick and tired of seeing rural residents treated like dirty by city folks who are just plain SELFISH!

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