San Diego city and county officials have pledged at least $55,000 in public money for a well to pump groundwater into a privately owned recreational pond in Rancho Bernardo.
Community leaders there want to free the beloved water feature from its dependence on costly city tap water and save it from a plan to replace it with drought-tolerant landscaping.
The scenic water hole is publicly accessible and has attracted thousands of locals during its 40 years in existence. The private business association that controls the 4.3-acre Webb Lake Park earlier this year proposed to eliminate the 30,000-square foot lake to save money and water during the drought.
Private donors, with help from San Diego city and county leaders, have banded together in hopes of instead drilling a well to find cost-free groundwater. The alternative water source is intended to replace the nearly 8 million gallons of tap water the owner has purchased annually from the city at a cost of about $55,000.
The plan has drawn some criticism, given that groundwater supplies are limited and water agencies are already having to raise rates because conservation efforts are costing them money.
"I don't like the idea of using fossil water to use for decorative purposes," said Jerry Hodge, a retired biology professor who lives in Escondido. "The lake is beautiful and it's fun to be around, but we're living in sort of a desert spot here, so we need to be careful with our water and manage it with a view to the future. I think it's a poor choice today."
Residents say the lake's value to the community outweighs the money and resources required to save it.
"I've been going there for 30-plus years with my kids and now my grandkids," Scott Lawn, a community activist who spearheaded the fundraising effort to save the lake, told the San Diego Union-Tribune this month. "It's a beautiful community treasure that is used literally by thousands of Rancho Bernardo families."
The city's decision to contribute $10,000 to fund the well will cost its own water department an estimated $55,000 a year in water sales, even as it raises water rates because of revenue shortfalls caused by state-mandated conservation.
San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey, who represents Rancho Bernardo and has pledged the funds for the lake, said saving the lake isn't about helping the private owner save money at city expense; it's about listening to his constituents and helping them save something they treasure.
"It is the public, the community itself, that is advocating to save this local landmark, and as their representative I am supporting their efforts," Kersey said in a statement. "While it may be on private property, it is used by the public and will continue to be used for public enjoyment for the foreseeable future."
Kersey said the well beats other potential water sources.
"I'd rather they use local groundwater resources than to import expensive water from non-local sources," Kersey said.
Thomas Harter, a groundwater researcher at UC Davis, said neither water source is inherently better than the other, and there's no one-size-fits-all plan for smart water management.
"There are a variety of ways we can harness water available, and there's not one source of storage that is better than another," Harter said. "It all depends on local resources."