Update February 10, 2023: Sweewater Water Authority General Manager Carlos Quintero has sent ECM a letter disputing some points raised by public speakers quoted in this article. You can read Quintero's remarks, Walsh's rebuttal, and additional information on concerns over safety of the district's dams in our newest article at this link.
Update January 25, 2023 at 6 p.m.: Sweetwater Water Authority has advised ECM late today that it has reopened its meetings for the public to attend in-person, will update its website to provide more information on its January 11 meeting, has enhanced audio of the January 11 meeting, and provided insurance valuation on the damaged dock.
By Miriam Raftery
January 25, 2023 (Alpine) – When Sweetwater Water Authority authorized draining Loveland Reservoir down to minimum pool and then in November, dead pool status over public objections, it left an L-shaped floating fishing dock paid for by taxpayers through a federal HUD grant perched on dry land.
Then came the deluge of rainfall in mid-January, which ripped apart the fishing dock.
Fishing dock destroyed, erosion and dam sedimentation also blamed on draining
“The HUD-funded fishing float is destroyed. One piece of the HUD fishing float was washed downstream several hundred feet and sits in the erosion cutout,” says Russell Walsh, an avid fisherman and activist who opposed the draining to a historic low level. “This would never have happened if Sweetwater left minimum pool in there, like they promised HUD and Congress in their grant solicitation.” Update: Sweetwater later confirmed that the dock was left on dry land following the draining to minimum pool status, even before the dead pool level was reached.
Walsh says the draining caused “massive erosion” that has many ramifications. “It is a huge amount of earth that was practically bulldozed down to the dam and water works, right through any fish trapped in the dead pool….It was a big mistake and will possibly require dredging near the dam. Huge mistake because the Sweetwater directors thought they were smarter than the last 75 years of directors, who left the conservation and minimum pool status alone.”
ECM sent an email to Sweetwater last week asking whether the district has insurance to cover rebuilding the dock, or whether the district would report to the County, which is seeking reports of storm damage in hopes of securing federal emergency funds for repairs including public infrastructure. Shortly after first publication of this article, Sweetwater responded with the insurance valuations for the dock as follows:
HALLSTEN ALUMINIUM FISHING DOCK/GANGWAY $46,782
360 SF HALSTEN FLOATING DOCK WITH 25 FT GANGWAY, ALUMINUM FRAME $23,391
Rains partially restore water level drained at Loveland
The rains brought good news as well as bad for supporters of Loveland Reservoir. Though the fishing floatis a shambles, Walsh estimates that recent rains have restored about half of the water level before the draining down to dead pool status began on November 15, though even then, the lake was below the minimum pool status agreed to in a land-swap deal with the Forest Service that Sweewater has refused to honor.
For now, the valve is closed and draining has stopped. But how long will the rainfall water remain in the reservoir? Sweetwater has previously indicated plans to continue draining Loveland as it sees fit in the future.
More East County residents are joining the fight to save Loveland. Kileen Fornelli-Eggers, a clinic administrator at Sycuan Medical Dental Center, states in a letter, “My wish is that the community is heard and alternatives are pursued instead of the draining option. Now is the time with all the rain to reverse the fully draining of the reservoir.”
Fornelli-Eggers lives near Loveland and voiced shock to learn it was “drained to mud” with plans to continue “over and over again.” Fornelli-Eggers noted that the reservoir was a “key TOOL for all fire agencies when the Valley swept through in 2020” adding, “The community I live in enjoys all aspects that the reservoir bring: fishing, hiking, bir and wildlife viewing but MOST importantly is the firefighting capability the reservoir provides to everyone in the area including businesses and residents.”
District halts meeting after scathing public criticisms over draining Loveland and alleged Brown Act violations
At its January 11 meeting, the district cut short the meeting due to technical audio difficulties, after scathing public comments, many of them blasting the district over its extreme draining of Loveland, even before destruction of the dock occurred. View video.
John Earl, a journalist who covers water issues and is also a ratepayer, complained of “atrocious” sound quality at a recent South Bay Irrigation meeting as well as the current meeting. “You’re making a mockery of the Brown Act…at least open the doors and let people come down here so they can here you,” he urged. “This is not the way to run a meeting.” He later warned the board that he expects legal challenges. Update: Sweetwater has since reopened its meetings for the public to attend in person. See details below.
A caller named Mary Dee also complained of a “huge buzz that sounds almost like a buzz saw in the background” and the hypocrisy of members sending members to outside meetings and dinners, “yet you keep hiding behind the Brown Act to keep us safe.”
Then she called Loveland’s "draining and dead pooling absolutely horrible.” She warned of the erosion along the dry embankment, adding, “I feel like there are far more efficient ways to get water without raping the landscape and Alpine and putting my community at risk of fire hazard.” She then faulted the district for misspending bond money intended for dam repairs on other thinks, action she said “can put the community at risk downstream.” She called for “a lot more oversight.”
The next speaker, Russell Walsh, noted that a bond measure passed was “specifically pushed by the division of safety of dams to correct problems at Sweetwater Dam” but that none of the items specified for the bond have been done. Fix Sweetwater dam and Loveland stairwell were among those items. “Your agency is not meriting public funding like this when bond money is treated like this, especially bond measure gotten by order of the division of Safety of Dams. And when Loveland is raped on three hoax pretexts,” he said.
He accused the district of losing nearly half -- 48% -- of water in transit, so customers aren’t really saving $30 dollars each, he suggested. He also said the drought was not a sufficient reason given levels of state reservoirs, andsaid claiming a need to drain the lake ot change valves was also a hoax. He called for the district to “let the reservoir fill back up and let the HUD-funded Congerss-approved fishing dock float again for the public,” days before the dock was destroyed by the storm.
Written public comments included Donald Miller, who said, “Draining of Loveland Reservoir has had a major impact on firefighting...not to mention the thousands of fish" as well as “countless wildlife int eh area that depended on the water.”
Patricia Moss wrote that “an environmental impact should have been completed since the environment is severely, and I mean severely affected by the actions” of draining the reservoir leaving only mud at the bottom of the river.
Mike Simpson said he toured the area around Loveland and took photos, adding, “draining Loveland to dead pool level is unacceptable. He, too, warned of fire danger by removing a water source used by firefighters in the past, adding pointedly that if “property burns or citizens are injured because of lack of water to put out fires, Sweetwater would be liable and responsible.”
The meeting was abruptly adjourned due to the sound issues, and the district has said it will redo the entire meeting including public comments.
Michael Garcia, assistant board secretary/administrative assistant for Sweetwater, stated in an email to ECM that “out of an abundance of caution due to technical issues identified relating to the January 11th meeting, and as stated on the notice posted to the website, all agenda items from the January 11th meeting will be rescheduled for consideration at a future meeting, including submitted public comments.”
Walsh, in an email to the district, objected to the district’s website stating the meeting was cancelled, with no link to view the video of the aborted session that included the public comments above and more.
ECM asked that the website be corrected to make clear the meeting was not cancelled until after public comments and for video to be posted and minutes to be provided, but so far the district has not complied. The district did providea link to the video, as well as a rough transcript filled with inaccuracies and nonsensical translations, with some speakers not even named, in response to ECM’s public records request. ECM asked for a downloadable copy to assure that the video could be preserved and uploaded on our own website.
Calaware, or Californians Aware, a nonprofit that helps citizens and journalists to protect open government and public access, confirmed to ECM that it is a violation of the Brown Act to say a meeting was cancelled when in fact, public testimony was presented and that those original comments must be preserved and made public as part of the public record.
Shortly after publication of this article, the district updated information on its website and sent ECM this response from Michael Garcia at Sweetwater Water Authority:
Regarding the January 11 meetings, we re-added the initial agenda packets to our website and added the video recordings. We will also add a supplemental notice that written public comments received for the January 11 meetings will be read at the meetings on January 19, 2023 (this was done) and January 25, 2023 (this will be done today).
Since the SBID and Authority determined that the January 11 meetings would be redone or rescheduled at future dates (eventually, January 19, 2023 (SBID) and January 25, 2023 (SWA)), and to ensure transparency, we have decided to provide “Unofficial Minutes” for the January 11th meetings and will post them to the Authority’s website by January 27, 2023. As you stated, the audio is “garbled,” so we will attempt a summary of the spoken public comments. Again, the written public comments have been and will be read onto the record of the future meetings. The Unofficial Minutes for SWA will note that the meeting was adjourned after public comments.
For reference, it is the Authority’s standard practice to post the written minutes 2-4 weeks after the actual meeting to allow for approval by the Boards. We post the meeting audio and/or video the next day.
The video links are downloadable. From your web browser, hover over the bottom right area of the video and click the down area to download it to your personal computer. The audio quality issue has also been remedied. I encourage you to listen to the January 19, 2023, SBID meeting for assurance.
Sweetwater resumes live meetings
Late today, General Manager Carlos Quintana informed ECM via email, "Our Board meetings are now open to the public. We started this after the issues we had with the audio two weeks ago. The last South Bay Irrigation District (1/19/23) meeting allowed members of the public to attend in-person and we intend to continue allowing this." Iin a phonecall, he later confirmed that Sweetwater Water Authority has also reopened its meetings for the public to attend in person.
However, he noted that the Governor's COVID-19 emergency declaration is expected to end in late February, after which the board will decide how to conduct its meetings, including whether or not to continue to provide a remote-viewing option.
Citizens start nonprofit, call for accountability
Members of the public who want to see Loveland Reservoir restored and no future draining are forming a nonprofit and have a Facebook page called Friends of Loveland Reservoir. “Our mission is to use education and activism to encourage the restoration and protection of Loveland Reservoir. We envision a restored environmental and recreational minimum pool where plants, animals, and people thrive,” the site states.
The nonprofit is awaiting IRS tax ID status, but have talked of raising funds to mount a legal challenge against Sweetwater Water Authority.
Walsh resolves, “We will find a way to have this atrocious behavior accounted for.”
It is NOT half full. It's half the already low level before
they drained it to dead pool status. It was only at minimum pool level before the draining, and is now only a very, very small percent of capacity.
This is similar to the Lake Morena situation. It's a travesty of justice to have lakeside communities and habitats destroyed by water boards that aren't accountable -- none of the people in East County communities impacted can vote for those boards.
I think we need a state law to change that -- a law that would require that any water board overseeing a lake or reservoir must have representatives elected by the people who live nearest to those reservoirs and dams, since dam safety is another issue. It shouldn't just be ratepayers who get to vote - it should be everyone impacted.