Lake Morena caught in crosshairs of San Diego’s water policy

The boat ramp at Lake Morena is closed until further notice due to the extremely low water levels Lake Morena is a reservoir owned by San Diego, which has drawn 2.1 billion gallons to be used by city customers.
The boat ramp at Lake Morena is closed until further notice due to the extremely low water levels Lake Morena is a reservoir owned by San Diego, which has drawn 2.1 billion gallons to be used by city customers.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Lars and Katherine Mitchell, and their dogs Ralph and Alice, are out for a morning walk beside this lake in the highlands 45 miles east of downtown San Diego.

The lake is not very scenic these days. Lars Mitchell knows the reason.

“San Diego took the water,” he said. “We’re the East County, they don’t care about us.”

Mitchell, 52, a contractor, has succinctly hit upon twin facts that have driven San Diego County water policy for 70 years: the region does not own most of its water supply, and water is often a zero-sum business — for every winner there must be a loser.

Those ominous realities loom large as San Diego and the rest of the county struggle with drought.


Morena is called a lake but is actually a city-owned reservoir, storing rainwater and runoff. From mid-December to mid-March, the city took 2.1 billion gallons of water from Morena to supply city customers — enough to supply 13,000 families for a year.

With the reservoir already depleted by years of drought, the drawdown has left it with a bathtub-style ring that is the symbol of California’s water woes. The water’s edge has a greenish tone. The boat ramp is stranded.

The city’s public utilities department decided last year that it needed to take more water from Lake Morena. Then-Mayor Bob Filner opposed the idea.

But after Filner resigned in a sexual harassment scandal, the drawdown of Lake Morena was back for consideration. County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents East County — including Lake Morena County Park — protested but to no avail.

The San Diego region has precious little native water from aquifers and other natural features. About half the water purchased annually by the San Diego County Water Authority is from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

In times of shortage, Los Angeles, a founding member of the MWD, has the right to greatly increase its purchase, in effect, taking much of the water annually allocated to the water authority. The authority supplies 24 member agencies, including the city of San Diego.

Droughts come and go throughout California but in San Diego, the fear that Los Angeles will invoke its “preferential rights” is constant.

“San Diego suffers from a chronic drought paranoia,” said Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor who has written extensively about Southern California water policy and San Diego politics.

The county water authority has taken steps in recent years to find other sources of water. It signed a deal to buy water from Imperial County, and supported construction of a desalination plant in Carlsbad. Both have been the subject of court fights.

Paranoia may have its benefits. In a generation, the percentage of its water that the authority buys from MWD has declined from 95% to about 50%. The water authority recently completed a $838-million project to enlarge the San Vicente Dam and reservoir to further decrease the region’s dependence on the MWD.

As a member of the county water authority, the city of San Diego has adopted its zero-sum mentality, Erie said: “An aggressive San Diego [is] seen as the water bully by suburbanites and farmers.”

Although the city swears it has no current plans to drain more water from Morena, there is nothing to prevent it once nature replenishes the lake. The county owns the park but the city owns the water.

“The reservoir level [at Morena] is not expected to increase until the next rainy season, and movement of water from Morena Reservoir will be evaluated then,” said a spokesman for the city’s public utilities department.

At an altitude of 3,000 feet, Lake Morena is the highest and most remote of the city’s nine reservoirs. Its dam dates to the late 19th century.

When full, the lake has a depth of 157 feet. After the drawdown, plus loss to evaporation, the lake is now at 83.6 feet.

“It’s like looking at a death,” said Corinne Vanderburgh, a college student who had brought her kayak to the county park but found the lake too shallow for satisfactory kayaking.

Before another drawdown, Jacob, the area’s supervisor, hopes to discuss the future of Lake Morena with Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Jacob says that drawing down the lake hurts the recreational potential of the park, and depletes the water supply that could be used for firefighting and other emergencies.

“It’s a poor way to manage water resources,” she said.

Although attendance at the park has decreased, people still fish at the lake. Families sit on the bank and wait.

“I’m looking for carp,” said Dino Panuga, who was there with several family members. “The lake is too shallow and hot for trout.”

On the Fourth of July weekend, the park’s 86 spaces were filled by families in tents and RVs. Campers enjoyed a respite beneath the spreading wild oak trees close to a small playground for children.

Before returning to San Diego, Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Martens, his wife, Tiffany, and their children Logan, 2, and Caleb, 5, enjoyed a pan-fried breakfast.

Martens will transfer soon to a base in Washington state. He said Lake Morena Park will be among the family’s best memories of their time in San Diego.

“It’s a great place to hang out,” said Martens, adding quickly, “particularly if you’re not that interested in the lake.”

Twitter: @LATsandiego