Outraged Residents Don't Want to Dry Up : Lake Morena's Draining Makes a Lot of Waves

Times Staff Writer

Jerry McKee gazes angrily at the water on Lake Morena.

"I can stand at my window and watch the water level drop every day," McKee said from the lakeside site where he is building his new home.

As people like McKee try to figure out a way to save Lake Morena in southeast San Diego County, the city's Department of Water Utilities is emptying it at a rate of 15 million gallons a day.

After Superior Court Judge William C. Pate ruled last month that draining the city-operated reservoir did not require an environmental impact report, the city opened the flood gates. Since then, the lake has dropped 10 inches and could continue to drop at least an inch a day for months, officials say.

Lake Morena Village residents are furious and plan to file a complaint with the state Water Resources Board alleging mismanagement of the water. A lawyer who represents the Lake Morena-Campo Chamber of Commerce said local residents are thinking about suing the city of San Diego for wasting taxpayers money.

Large and Shallow

City officials say the evaporation at the lake makes it impractical to keep it full and that Otay Reservoir, where the water is being sent, needs to be kept full in the event of an emergency.

"Morena is an inefficient reservoir because it is large and shallow. We have more evaporation at Morena than the other reservoirs . . . so it is to our advantage to have less water in Morena and more in the other lakes," said Will Sniffin, deputy director of water production for the Water Utilities Department.

The water is being transferred first to Lake Barrett and then to Otay Reservoir where a filtration plant treats the water before it is pumped into the city water system, Sniffin said.

Exactly how low will the lake get? Sniffin said it depends on the amount of rainfall and runoff. "At this point we can't tell you. . . . It will never be empty," he said. "We can only draft down to a certain point anyway."

The city is studying the amount of sediment in the lake and may make efforts to remove it, depending on the study's results.

Sierra Club spokeswoman Barbara Bamberger said the drafting would seriously affect local wildlife, including peregrine falcons and American bald eagles. "We don't feel (the drafting) is necessary because the evaporation rates in Lake Barrett are no better," she said.

The environmentalist group's data shows evaporation rates for Lake Morena are actually lower than those at Lake Barrett or Otay Reservoir, Bamberger said. Sniffin countered that Lake Morena's larger surface area means more water evaporates.

Limited Water Rights

Georgine Brave, the attorney representing the local chamber of commerce, said water has not been removed from Lake Morena for at least 10 years, allowing a large ecosystem to build up. She believes the city is transferring the water from the lake because a long-term agreement that calls for the county to pay the city for evaporated water has lapsed. The county owns the lake, but the city maintains limited water rights that allow it to transfer the water to Lake Barrett in an emergency. No emergency has been declared.

"We feel the draining is about money, not the need for water . . . no water emergency was declared," Brave said. "Why did they start to take the water now after all these years? We're saying that they've allowed an environment, this ecology, to build up and now they're taking the water without good reason."

Homeowner McKee agreed.

"What they've done is left it full for many, many years, and, when you do that, it creates an environment that's totally dependent on this body of water. Now you take it away and you destroy everything that's been created. Had they managed it over the last 10 years as a reservoir, if they had constantly drawn it down to what they call their minimum pool, this environment wouldn't have created around it," McKee said.

Richard Leach, president of the Lake Morena-Campo Chamber of Commerce, said the draining of the lake will hurt local businesses. "There's going to be less people coming here, and it's going to create a mosquito population like you wouldn't believe. People have been coming out and sinking their life savings into a home here. Their real estate value is going to go down, probably by a good deal," said Leach, who manages a Lake Morena real estate company.

Other Agendas?

Bamberger noted increased development around Otay Reservoir including plans to build a U. S. Olympic training center and said there was a "very good chance that there are other agendas in this effort."

Sniffin denied that the city had a hidden agenda and dismissed complaints that transferring the water was destroying the lake. "All the reservoirs in San Diego County have been built for potable water purposes" and not necessarily recreation, he said.

San Diego County Supervisor George Bailey, whose district includes Lake Morena, was disappointed with Pate's ruling, one of his aides said. "What's disturbing to us is that, if all of Lake Morena was drained, it still would not solve the water problems in San Diego and it's nonsense to us that the city is destroying a major recreational facility because of (this). It's a Band-Aid approach to the problem," said Dianne Jacob, Bailey's chief of staff.

About 300,000 visitors use Lake Morena for camping, boating and fishing every year, and 80% of them come from San Diego County, Jacob said.

For his part, Leach says he knows he could make more money managing a real estate office in downtown San Diego. "But I moved here because I love it here. When you drive around here, people wave at you. It's a real nice place to raise a family."

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