draining water
Lake Morena 1
Lake Morena reservoir in early January, a month after the city of San Diego resumed draining 2 billion gallons of water from the lake.
Photo by Katie Schoolov / KPBS

by Claire Trageser | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource

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 of a 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 former Mayor Bob Filner agreed to stop the draining. But Interim Mayor Todd Gloria took a hard line. He says 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.

Lake Morena Water Level
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.
Photo by Katie Schoolov / KPBS

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.

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 significantly drained 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

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 may 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.

draining water
Water flows from Lake Morena’s dam into a creek, which it follows for about 7 miles to Barrett Reservoir.
Photo by Katie Schoolov / KPBS

San Diego Says It Needs Water

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 says 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 die, 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

Mathaey Nisso
Mathaey Nisso, the owner of Oak Shores Malt Shop near Lake Morena, rings up a customer.
Photo by Katie Schoolov / KPBS

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’

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.

Ramon Guerra
Ramon Guerra waits for his friends in a rented boat on Lake Morena.
Photo by Katie Schoolov / KPBS

“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.

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...