Get local, investigative reporting in your inbox.
by Claire Trageser | KPBS
edited by Lorie Hearn | inewsource
Between December and January, the city of San Diego drew down about 40 percent of the water in Lake Morena reservoir in East County, despite protests from the county and nearby residents.
In two months, it went from 3.4 billion gallons to 1.9 billion gallons—a loss of water equivalent to 2,200 Olympic swimming pools. Now, this lake — owned by the city but 50 miles from it — is only 4 percent full, and 4 percent full it will stay, according to the city.
When new water fills the lake from rainstorms like the one last week, the city of San Diego will turn its faucet back on and take it.
“We intend to essentially run the lake at about this current level as long as we possibly can so we can capture and use the local runoff to the benefit of our ratepayers,” said Brent Eidson, the external affairs deputy director for the city’s public utilities department.
If the city didn’t take the water, San Diego ratepayers would face higher bills, Eidson said. Although Lake Morena’s water accounts for less than 3 percent of San Diego’s total water supply, reservoir water is much cheaper than the water we import from outside the region.
The water taken from Lake Morena over the past two months is worth about $5 million, Eidson said.
But San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents the area, warns the withdrawal could hurt the environment and stop money flowing to Lake Morena Village, the small town that sits on the reservoir.
I visited the lake in early January, a month after the drawdown began, and again in late February, soon after it ended. The visual difference was striking. In some places, the water level had receded by about 40 feet. The boat launch was closed and a piece of land that had once been an island was now a peninsula.
Because the city of San Diego owns the water, it can take it whenever it wants, which it’s done multiple times.
But damage to infrastructure used to move Lake Morena’s water to the Otay Water Treatment Plant meant the city hadn’t drawn down the lake since 2001. So residents of Lake Morena Village got used to a fuller lake. When the city resumed the drawdown in early 2013, Jacob asked then Mayor Bob Filner to stop it. He agreed, but then resigned, and Interim Mayor Todd Gloria restarted the drawdown on Dec. 1, 2013.
Lake Morena Village residents were not pleased.
Karen Russell is a longtime resident of the village and manages its local water company, which supplies residents with their water. As she pulled the cover off an old blue paddle boat in her yard, she said she worries the lower water level will mean fewer people visit the lake to camp, rent boats, and fish, which could hurt the small town’s economy.
“It’s sad for the whole community because if you ask someone that’s lived in San Diego County for many years, the thing they’ll point out is that I used to fish in Lake Morena,” she said.
Russell said she and many of her neighbors moved to the town because of the lake. Now that the boat launch is closed, she’s putting her boat up for sale.
But that may not be necessary, according to Scott Hoover, the district manager for San Diego County’s Parks and Recreation Department. While the drive-in boat launch is closed, people can still rent boats from the county or use their own, as long as they can carry them into the lake themselves.
And the fishing is still good, Hoover said.
The county just stocked 9,000 pounds of trout in the lake, “and fishing might actually be a little bit better because you have a smaller body of water and bigger number of fish, so it might be a little easier to catch,” he said.
Before the drawdown, Jacob said losing lake water could create a massive fish die-off, because there wouldn’t be enough oxygen in the remaining water to support all of the fish.
Hoover said while there’s potential for some fish to die, a new aeration system set up by the county will supply extra oxygen to keep the fish alive.
During my second visit to the lake, I saw a few dead fish floating in the lake — something I hadn’t seen on my first trip. But Anton Provaznik, a Lake Morena Village resident who was fishing that day, said he’d caught fish on his last outing.
So far, the campground also hasn’t seen a clear drop in visitors. While the number of December campground reservations dropped from 2012 to 2013, in January 2013 the numbers were actually up over last year.
And Mathaey Nisso, the owner of the Oak Shores Malt Shop near the lake, said business has remained good.
“My business is okay, because I have people camping, but it’s not like before,” he said.
While Nisso and residents like Russell get used to a lower lake, other San Diego reservoirs might also be drawn down, said Matt O’Malley, the legal and policy director for water advocacy group San Diego Coastkeeper. About 10 to 15 percent of the city’s water comes from the city’s nine reservoirs. The rest is bought from the San Diego County Water Authority, which buys almost all of its water from the Metropolitan Water District.
“Because we are so dependent on foreign water, we are going to have to start pulling a lot more from the reservoirs,” O’Malley said. “That’s the source that we have at this point, so that’s what we’re using.”
And the current drought conditions in California only increase that likelihood, he said.
Eidson said taking water from Lake Morena and the other city reservoirs is standard practice, and that the recent Lake Morena drawdown wasn’t due to the drought. He said right now, the city is responding to the drought not by increasing the water it takes from reservoirs, but by stepping up its messaging to customers to conserve more water.
But San Diegans’ attempts to cut back on water likely won’t make much difference for Lake Morena. Russell still plans to sell her boat.