A floating dock now sits on mud at Loveland Reservoir, April 13, 2020. A controlled water transfer by Sweetwater Authority has visibly lowered the shoreline level. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

David Thomas knows the cove that once was. He spent much of his childhood at Loveland Reservoir near Alpine, sneaking onto the eastern shore to cast a line where the lake had been deemed off limits for fishing.

It landed him in trouble, he admits.

“I had to go to court and tell the judge why I thought it was not fair that we didn’t get to fish in the best part of the lake,” said Thomas, now 50 and still an avid Loveland visitor. “So, I have a commitment to fight for this to stay open because I fought so hard earlier.”

Why this matters

Sweetwater Authority uses its Loveland Reservoir to serve about 200,000 water customers, including in National City, Bonita and parts of Chula Vista. The reservoir is also a popular fishing spot but that’s threatened as the authority considers draining much of the lake.

He eventually got his wish. The cove has been part of the designated area for Loveland’s fishing program for nearly 25 years and now includes a floating dock, portable restrooms and a parking lot up the hill. 

But today, that dock sits in mud and much of the cove no longer holds water. Earlier this year, the lake’s owner, Sweetwater Authority, completed what’s known as a controlled transfer: It opened a valve at the Loveland Dam, allowing water to travel 17 miles downstream to the agency’s namesake reservoir south of Spring Valley. 

Sweetwater captured 2.7 billion gallons from the transfer, enough water to serve its roughly 200,000 customers through next year. But it also wiped out the fishing area. Thomas said he used to find spots 50 feet deep. “Now the deepest water I can find is 8 feet,” he said.

The fishing program, one of the few free options in San Diego County, is under threat as water authority officials consider a consultant’s recommendation to drain the lake even further. Loveland, which Sweetwater uses for emergency storage, would be taken down to levels not seen in some 50 years. Anglers who have enjoyed protected access for decades risk losing the lake as the agency prioritizes its customers who live more than a half-hour away.

Fishing access at Loveland isn’t optional. A 1996 easement granted to the U.S. Forest Service requires it, along with access for other recreational activities such as birdwatching and hiking.

Abi Thomas walks with her dad, David Thomas, to one of his favorite fishing spots at Loveland Reservoir, April 13, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

But just how much space the fishing program should receive is where anglers and Sweetwater officials differ. Ron Mosher, Sweetwater’s engineering director, said the easement covers a fixed area of land and only offers access to the shoreline.

“The variable there is whether there’s water there or not,” Mosher said. “And that’s totally dependent on our need to utilize a source of water to create potable water, and how much water has flowed into Loveland Reservoir through runoff.”

Major drawdown possible

Sweetwater delivers water to a 32-square-mile area comprising National City, Bonita and parts of Chula Vista. None of its $64 million budget is funded by tax revenue and is instead covered by ratepayer fees and other sources.

Its two reservoirs are key to the agency avoiding the additional cost of importing water. Together the lakes can hold 17 billion gallons of water — enough to supply Sweetwater customers for two years.

Gillingham Water says the authority has a problem its counterparts in the region would love to have: too much supply and not enough demand. 

The consulting firm, hired in 2019 to conduct a study as Sweetwater explored ways to leverage its assets, has recommended eliminating the emergency storage policy at Loveland. Under a 1982 policy, a three-month supply is kept at the lake in case of an earthquake or another event that shuts down the aqueduct system. 

Gillingham called that policy outdated and said the agency has other local water available to maintain operations in an emergency. 

If the authority adopts the consultant’s recommendation, the lake would be reduced to the lowest level it’s been under Sweetwater’s watch. Loveland, now at 32% capacity, would be slashed to just 5%.

Sweetwater’s seven-member governing board hasn’t acted on the recommendation, but the policy change could be financially appealing. The authority could conduct a one-time withdrawal of the lake, an amount of water that Gillingham valued at $6 million. The consultants also said the policy would reduce losses from water evaporation, yielding an additional $300,000 a year.

Hector Martinez, Sweetwater’s board chairman, said the recommendation “is seriously being considered.”

“We’re trying to balance the needs of the community,” Martinez said. “Our ratepayers within the Sweetwater Authority service area are generous to let anybody from the county use the facilities through us, their representatives.”

But Gillingham acknowledges the fishing program would take a hit. 

It has offered some options: Give Sweetwater operations a priority and accommodate fishing only when water levels allow, or pursue a multi-purpose policy that would instead draw the reservoir to about 4,500 acre-feet — which would preserve fishing access in all years. Loveland holds roughly 8,000 acre-feet of water now.

An angler fishes from the shore of Loveland Reservoir, April 13, 2020. A controlled water transfer by Sweetwater Authority has visibly lowered the shoreline level. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Another option is extending the boundaries of the fishing program to lower water levels, though relocating recreational facilities would cost money.

Gary Strawn, an angler who serves on the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, said fights between recreation and water agencies are common — and it’s a tough argument for anglers to win. (The water board’s enforcement rarely involves reservoir operations. Sweetwater coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to meet environmental requirements for its recent water transfer.)

Strawn pointed to Lake Morena in East County. Its owner, the city of San Diego, conducted a major transfer in 2014 to service customers that took it down to 4% capacity despite outcry from residents. It’s at 11% as of late March.

Strawn said Morena once was a great fishing lake.

“Recreation, it’s just a shame because it is really important,” he said. “But it doesn’t have the kind of political clout that it would need.”

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‘Shoulder to shoulder’ on shoreline

Before Sweetwater took over Loveland operations in the 1970s, the reservoir was owned and regularly drained by California American Water Co. The federal government provided fishing access along a half mile of the northern shoreline to anglers on a parcel it owned.

Sweetwater obtained that land in the 1990s and in exchange gave the Forest Service property it owned in Descanso. The deal included the easement for the current fishing program.

The easement does not specify how many miles of shoreline shall be available to anglers. But correspondence from when the agencies were hashing out the deal show the Forest Service envisioned 3.6 to 5 miles of available shoreline for anglers, depending on water levels. 

Thomas, the angler, estimates it’s much fewer than 2 miles now, making for crowds on busy weekends.

“We’re like shoulder to shoulder, ‘cause there’s only a handful of very decent spots to fish,” Thomas said. “And we’re all on top of each other, and the whole reason for having this is that we can get away from people.”

Fellow angler Russell Walsh began contacting Sweetwater officials after the agency restricted fishing hours at Loveland, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The lake has since been reopened to seven days a week, but while the easement calls for fishing access from sunrise to sunset, the parking lot closes at 6 p.m. 

The Forest Service told Walsh it has no jurisdiction over Sweetwater’s fishing program and considers the current hours “as satisfying the original intent of the easement.” 

Walsh said he’s contacted elected officials and other agencies for help but found little success in changing the authority’s mind. 

“There’s no way they have concerns for their obligations for the fishing program,” he said. “This is not representative of somebody who gives one fig for their fishing program or for the people that live out here.”

But Sweetwater says its obligations to ratepayers take priority. 

“Our mission is to provide safe, potable water to nearly 200,000 people in our service area,” Mosher, the engineering director, said. “That’s our focus and that’s what the focus of staff has been and needs to be.” 

Board Chair Martinez said he wants more people to take advantage of recreation at the agency’s two reservoirs.

“Historically, there hasn’t been very good attendance,” he said. “And I have a feeling that if people don’t show up, maybe the board members might not be as willing to spend money on these recreational programs that are paid for by the ratepayers.”

Correction: 10:15 a.m., April 22, 2021

An earlier version of the story incorrectly described the direction water flows from the Loveland Reservoir to the Sweetwater Reservoir. The water flows downstream.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...