Man-Made Lakes: A Splash With Home Buyers

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

At the rate lakes are popping up in the Southland, Minnesota may soon have a rival.

Of course, the 10,000 lakes that Minnesota touts on its auto license plates are natural, unlike most of those in Southern California.

The vast majority of Southland lakes are man-made and have been dug in the past 20 years as part of residential developments. And there’s no end in sight, for good commercial reasons.


“(Home) models on a lake make an incredible statement,” said consultant Jeffery S. Meyers of the Meyers Group. “In today’s market, when buyers must drive an hour each way (to and from work), there must be something to draw them. . . . A lake is an attraction.”

Added Sanford Goodkin, a real estate consultant with Peat Marwick Main & Co./Goodkin:

“There are three primary amenities builders use to attract buyers--golf courses, tennis courts and lakes. A golf course attracts the user as well as those who want open space. Tennis courts arouse limited interest, but water has the most universal appeal.

“Water is essential to life. People have clustered next to it ever since our existence as tadpoles, squiggling out into the mud. People like to be able to say, ‘I live on the shores of Gitche Gumee.’ ”

Meyers agreed. “Builders look to recreational amenities to determine the identity or aura of a community. Lakes have proven to be one of the top draws,” he said.

The marketing decision by home builders to provide water as an amenity has spawned an industry that has experienced slow but discernible growth since the late 1960s.

J. Harlan Glenn, owner of an Orange County company that builds lakes, has seen his business develop from four or five projects a year when the company was formed in 1973 to a current annual average of 175.

Statistics on the number of man-made lakes in Southern California have not been compiled. Nor are there comparison figures, but Lake Arrowhead, 185 feet at the deepest point, probably has the greatest depth and the 124-acre Lake Mission Viejo is certainly one of the largest.

It takes an average of one to three years from conception to completion of a man-made lake, Glenn explained. There are many variables, but it costs $30,000 to $50,000 an acre to build a 30-acre lake, excluding land and excavation costs.

Joe Kepner, director of marketing for Warmington Co., developers of Moreno Valley Ranch, said the development’s 35-acre lake cost $5 million for land, design, construction and filling.

Still, a developer has no trouble recouping the cost of a lake, according to Meyers. Builders charge 20% to 25% more for lake-view property; lake-front lots sell at a 50% or more premium.

Kepner confirmed that there could be a $50,000 to $100,000 premium on the base prices of $189,000 and $193,900 for lake-front homes in Moreno Valley Ranch. By comparison, those with city or mountain views command $15,000 to $20,000 premiums.

Construction of man-made lakes has changed over the past decade. At one time, people just dug a hole and filled it with water, Glenn said. Such lakes, often built on golf courses, were prone to leakage.

The lake that Glenn’s company designed recently for Moreno Valley Ranch is a good example of the type of work being done today. It is lined with compacted clay soil, has a gradual slope from the edge to the 5-foot depth, lined with “soil cement” and a “freeboard” (concrete with a rock-like finish) protective edging all along the shoreline.

A lake can be built almost anywhere if you want to spend the money, Glenn said. Land planners, landscape architects, civil and lake engineers make up the team of experts that design and build man-made lakes.

When cost is a consideration, they take advantage of existing topography, such as canyons, and contour for the most efficient earthmoving. Using computers “has made the job easier because we can bring back the details we need and modify them, not like the old pen and ink where you start over every time,” Glenn said.

Where does the water come from to fill these man-made lakes?

Marketing director Kepner explained that the water for Moreno Valley Ranch lake comes from an on-site agricultural well and is not suitable for domestic use. “So we’re not robbing water from anyone,” he added quickly.

There are no legal restrictions against using potable water to fill lakes, Glenn said, and while the majority of man-made lakes are filled with potable water, he said that a number are filled with reclaimed water and there are even some cases where polluted ground water is pumped up, treated and then put into a lake.

Lakes can also be beneficial in upgrading an area’s storm drain system, Glenn said. And in cases such as Lake Mission Viejo, they function as an emergency water supply. Others are used as regulating and storage reservoirs for water districts.

Another reason for excavating a lake is to provide “fill” dirt for the rest of the development, Glenn said. That was true of the Woodbridge project in Orange County, where the water surface is now 12 to 13 feet below the original ground level.

As for maintenance costs of the lakes, they are shared by the development residents.

‘Art and Science’

Total monthly cost of lake maintenance at Moreno Valley Ranch is $8,208, according to marketing director Kepner. That includes water treatment, chemicals, maintainance labor, equipment and professional services. It amounts to $2.54 of the $35 monthly homeowners fee.

“Care of these (man-made lakes) has evolved into an art and science,” said Tom Buckowski, lake biologist at Mission Viejo. “It’s based on science, but art comes in just as it does in aquaculture.”

The many elements of the lake environment--water, plants, fish, birds, microorganisms--make up a complicated biological ecosystem. The job of man-made lake management is to keep the system in balance.

Over the years there has been a change from mostly pump circulation of water in lakes to a combination skimming/aeration/mixing system requiring only air blowers (low-pressure compressors). With this system, better water quality is achievable with less chemical use, Glenn explained.

Mosquito Abatement

Some lakes are stocked for sport fishing, but also for other reasons. The Gambusia, or mosquito fish, eats the mosquito larvae, explained biologist Buckowski. The small fish, however, become food for larger species, so here again a balance must be maintained in the type of fish placed in the lake.

Weeds are a major problem in Lake Mission Viejo, according to lake administrator Bill Schwartz. However, Schwartz added that the weeds also enhance oxygen and provide a place for young fish to hide from predators.

Buckowski said there are three controls for weeds: chemical, mechanical and biological. Chemical agents usually offer only a temporary solution; the plants may be physically removed mechanically, or a biological solution might be to stock the lake with fish that eat the unwanted vegetation.

Other lake management companies experience the same dilemma. “From time to time, particularly in summer, we have problems with weeds in the water,” said Hal Poett, vice president of Westlake Lake Management Assn. in Westlake Village. They grow from seeds in the alluvial soil that flows into the lake from the surrounding hillsides.

Periodic Dredging

“We try to control the growth with light chemicals,” Poett said.

The alluvial soil also builds up in the basins of the 150-acre lake and necessitates periodic dredging.

Another of their problems is keeping debris out of the water, Poett said. The streets in Westlake Village drain into the lake, so residents need to be repeatedly reminded to keep the streets clean.

Lakes built prior to 1982, such as the private lake at Spring Valley in Victorville, sometimes include a swimming area with a beach. A change made in the state swimming pool code in 1982, however, requires any artificial basin designated as a swimming area to conform to all the construction and biological purity of a swimming pool.

It’s impossible to meet those standards in a lake, explained lake builder Glenn.

Swimming Lagoon

It wasn’t until 1985 that legislation was passed that exempted naturalistic swimming areas with more than 20,000 square feet of surface area from some of the required construction features.

“Now we can build a swimming lagoon alongside a lake. Usually it is separated by a walk or bridge,” Glenn said. The two bodies of water are totally separate, with the lagoon meeting standards for chlorine and filtering.

Swimming lagoons have been designed by his company as part of the man-made lakes at EastLake in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, and at Rancho Santa Margarita and the two lakes at Woodbridge in Orange County.

Overall education of people that use man-made lakes is vitally important, Buckowski said. Usually wildlife grows only to the extent the food supply allows, but if people feed the animals, it upsets the natural balance.

Excrement from too many ducks creates a water-quality problem, according to Glenn. He also stressed that people need to understand the effect an action such as washing out a diaper in a lake can have on the water.

“The ultimate destiny of all lakes is terrestrial,” Buckowski said, meaning that eventually they fill with soil and dry up. “Through lake management, however, we can prolong that process.”