By Elijah McKee
June 22, 2022 (Alpine) — On the outskirts of Alpine lies something rare in East County — an exceptional opportunity for fishing and other recreation on land that is free to access through an arrangement with the U.S. Forest Service.
Its name is Loveland Reservoir, a sparkling lake in the East County foothills that sits just under 30 percent full these days, at around 1,300 feet above sea level. It provides water to National City and the South Bay Irrigation District via the Sweetwater Authority, the utility agency that owns and operates the water stored in Loveland.
However, the opportunity for lakeside recreation is at risk of disappearing. At a meeting on May 16, 2022, SWA outlined plans to adjust their reservoir infrastructure to support decreasing the water level to the “dead pool” level, meaning to only 0.5 percent full.
Such an action would deplete the lion’s share of Loveland’s storage, creating a level that even SWA could not continue to use. Over 100 vertical feet of the lake elevation would be cut and its current surface area of 203 acres would be reduced to just 10 acres.
San Diego County’s water is costly, and surface water reserves are historically low, so SWA conducts these transfers in order to reduce their ratepayer costs. The most recent transfer was in January of 2021, when 2.7 billion gallons of water were sent through Loveland Dam and downstream 17 miles to Sweetwater reservoir, bringing the level at Loveland to the “emergency pool” level. The dead pool level would mean drawing off the rest of this emergency storage.
Etched into the sides of the lake are the marks of transfers like this one, visible in variations of color and vegetation. Due to its bathtub shape, just a few feet of higher or lower water makes a large difference.
A similar situation has developed in recent years at Lake Isabella in Kern County.
At Loveland, neighbors to the lake and its avid angler community fear that SWA’s priorities and openness to a dead pool water level will set aside their access to the land, effectively terminating lakeside recreation at Loveland.
WHERE WATER MEETS ROCK: RESIDENTS FIGHT TO SAVE LAKE
Be that as it may, those who love the lake are willing to fight for it.
One advocate, Russell Walsh, lives just up the hill from Loveland in Jamul and has spearheaded much of the community organizing to preserve the lake. Neither of his three sons fish, but Walsh is compelled to fight for recreation at Loveland for the next generation’s rights to access it.
“We can’t fold, we cannot quit,” said Walsh one morning at the lake. “They want to change their water policy and kill recreation.”
Before focusing his time on advocating for Loveland, Walsh would fish the lake twice a week for carp and bass. He appreciates how the water supports protected habitats, such as the arroyo toad’s, and is a resource for fighting fire in the area. He also knows people who come to Loveland every single day to fish.
“There’s lots of places to ride a bike. There’s not a lot of lakes,” said Walsh.
He has previously advocated for repairs and appropriate expenditures to the Sweetwater dam. Now, through a two-year long campaign of meeting with representatives at the county, state, and federal levels, attending community planning group meetings, and speaking with people in the lake’s parking lot, Walsh aims to stir a groundswell of support for lakeside recreation access at Loveland.
“Last year [SWA] voted to drain it below emergency level without a feasibility study,” said Walsh as he observed the current water level, recalling the recent transfer. “And I was telling them, ‘You can’t do that, we have a legal fishing program, we have rights. The emergency pool is lower than the fishing pool. You can’t do that.’”
Indeed, a feasibility study was completed by Gillingham Water Planning and Engineering, Inc, in November of 2020. The study recommended the dead pool idea now on the table, advising that SWA transfer Loveland’s remaining emergency storage to Sweetwater Reservoir because Loveland’s storage was no longer needed thanks to water security measures taken by the county. However, in September of 2020, when SWA unanimously voted for the recent transfer, this study was not yet complete.
Through this kind of advocacy, Walsh has found allies, such as the Sierra Club. There are also others who aim to protect reservoir recreation in East County, such as Supervisor Joel Anderson who advocated for greater public access in 2021.
But Walsh has also learned the difficulties of engaging the large institutional bodies. “It’s like I’m invisible,” he expressed.
Carlos Quintero, the General Manager of SWA since last September, has no issue with recreation at the lake and asserts he only makes transfers based on need — but he stresses that his top priority is to those paying for the water downstream and to making sure their needs are met.
“We’re just on opposite sides of the issue,” he said in regards to Walsh, with whom he had a meeting at Loveland in early May of 2022. According to Walsh, Quintero is the first GM to openly communicate with him.
SWA is a Joint Powers Authority originally founded in 1972, nearly 30 years after Loveland Lake was created. It is governed by a board of seven directors, currently chaired by Hector Martinez. According to Leslie Payne, the Public Affairs Manager, SWA has 33,000 accounts serving 200,000 people in Chula Vista, National City, and Bonita.
Payne and Quintero report that these SWA customers use approximately 17,000 acre/feet each year from surface sources like reservoirs, plus groundwater wells and purchased water from the San Diego County Water Authority. A single acre/foot is about 325,000 gallons of water.
“SWA has rights over this water. It’s our customers' water,” said Quintero, explaining the 2021 transfer. “We do support recreational activities given the right conditions. We’re not out there purposefully trying to prevent the community from using this. It’s just—our mission is pretty clear.”
“We’re entering a pretty tough period with the drought. Our reservoirs are pretty low, as far as capacity,” he continued. “We try to work with everyone. But our main goal is to make sure that our service area has adequate water.”
FISHING FLOAT UNUSUABLE
Notably, the transfer put Loveland’s fishing float out of commission. Facilitated with SWA and funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2008 for the purpose of a safe and stable fishing area, the float is now in the dirt and overgrown with weeds due to the low water level.
Walsh has tried to clean up the dock, but the brush grows back as the water recedes. According to him, it was supposed to be a “100-year lifetime product,” and is currently unusable after just 14 years with no intervention from HUD, nor SWA.
Quintero, who only took up his position in September of 2021, defended the recent transfer further in a comment to an article in the San Diego Reader. “The most cost-effective source of water for our customers comes from Authority-owned reservoirs,” he wrote.
CHECKING THE RECORD: FOREST SERVICE DUCKS RESPONSIBLITY
Still, Walsh and other community members maintain that SWA must factor in their right to recreation in their water policy, even if that means purchasing more water from the county — which has boasted water security up to 2045.
To date, Walsh has submitted four Freedom of Information Act requests to the Forest Service along with two Public Records Act requests to the State of California. He estimates he has sent around 40 inquiries to SWA, while a new FOIA submittal is being processed in Washington D.C. with others on the way.
Through his outreach and this document review, Walsh claims to have found evidence that the Forest Service is responsible for protecting recreation access at Loveland and holding SWA accountable.
What he found was a 25 year-old paper trail of the deal between SWA and the Forest Service that set up the arrangement of access to the reservoir, in the name of conservation, water storage, and public partnership.
“There was a land swap where SWA received land from the federal government,” affirmed Quintero. “In return, SWA issued an access easement to Loveland reservoir.”
The 1997 easement identifies a shoreline fishing program to be administered from sunrise to sunset, as well as other protected activities such as birdwatching and hiking. To Walsh and other supporters, it is clear that the Forest Service should ensure the easement is administered properly since they are the public partner in the agreement.
Walsh saw that the federal agency did act in this role in 2009, when they prioritized the public in a discussion about holiday closures at the lake.
Yet current Forest Service officials disagree that they are in any way connected to matters at the lake. In fact, they have maintained for years that SWA has full powers over running the lake, and that the easement only outlines a maximum level of access.
For a moment, some Forest Service officials even considered “quitclaiming” the easement back to SWA, which would erase themselves altogether and leave the door open for things like user fees at the lake. Part of what makes Loveland recreation so desired is that it is free, unlike SWA’s other reservoir, Sweetwater, which charges day fees to recreate.
“USFS simply has no legal authority or jurisdiction in this matter,” wrote Robert Heiar, then Descanso District Ranger of the Cleveland National Forest, in a letter to Walsh on April 14, 2021. “Our agency continues to recommend you direct your efforts to the SWA who has sole jurisdiction in this matter. USFS considers this matter closed.”
Heiar’s response was reiterated by other Forest Service officials in their response to Walsh inquiring with the USDA Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack.
“In addition to the land exchange agreement being non-binding, there is no mention of [a minimum recreation pool] in the agreement nor in the access element accompanying the land exchange,” wrote Deputy Forester Sandra Watts in the response, dated February 25, 2022.
Walsh was glad to get the response, but did not waver in believing that any length of shoreline, by definition, requires water. “Basically, they reinvented the intent of the easement,” he scoffed. “Easements are designed not to be arbitrary, to take out any doubt about intent.”
Quintero also said otherwise. “I think the easement is very general,” he said. “And you operate it based on the conditions.”
Prior to Walsh’s advocacy, in the lead up to the land swap’s finalization, some stakeholders — including the Department of Fish and Game and now retired manager of the San Diego City Lakes program, Jim Brown — were already voicing concern about the public taking a net loss in land ownership. SWA’s likelihood for fair and open management of the property was also among their concerns.
The deal went through, and land known as Rancho Samagatuma was brought under federal conservation in exchange for a parcel at Loveland given to SWA, who at that time wanted it to boost their water quality protection. The catch, though, was the recreation program outlined in the easement on that parcel that Walsh and the lake community say is now being thrown out.
“You just took 25 years to do a wealth transfer,” argued Walsh. “And you’re being unreliable. And you shouldn’t be able to do land swaps anymore if this is the way you’re going to handle it.”
Cleveland National Forest officials did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
COMMUNITY PETITIONS FOR ACCESS
Aside from preserving the water level, the oversight that community members like Walsh desire from the Forest Service includes full hours of operation according to the “sunrise to sunset” easement clause. The lake was closed completely for about three months in 2020, and after that was still only partially open.
SWA cited COVID-19 and staffing shortages as the cause at the time. The hours were eventually restored to 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week in May, 2022, and other actions of the past few years were reversed as well, like the returns of an online page about the fishing program and the original Forest Service parking lot sign. According to Leslie Payne, SWA also promoted the outdoor recreation program at times of high quarantine.
Still, Walsh and company are pushing for steadfast sunrise to sunset access year-round to accommodate working people, the best times for wildlife viewing, and the coolest, least crowded hours.
“The easement does indicate that access is from sunrise to sunset,” admitted General Manager Quintero. “Unfortunately, we have to patrol the lake to make sure that nobody is left, so nobody gets locked out at the gate. We need to do this a little early, that’s why we close at 6.”
Quintero stressed the importance of employee safety — that being out on a boat at twilight was suboptimal — and that SWA does what they can with their available resources.
“It provides plenty of opportunities for the community. On average during the summer that’s 12 hours of fishing,” he continued. “We think this is very accommodating hours.”
Those who use the lake disagree. To date, Walsh has gathered petition signatures of 83 concerned community members and counting, who want to see full sunrise to sunset access restored.
Of course, the hours are beside the point if the lake is drawn down to the dead pool level, negating both lakeside recreation and emergency water storage.
Walsh formally invited SWA to a mediation regarding the shoreline, water level and sunrise to sunset access at Loveland, but they declined. He has offered the same to current Descanso District Ranger, Scott Tangenberg, also to no avail.
He hopes such an event could yield a new Memorandum of Understanding between SWA, the Forest Service and the public, and perhaps even other measures like a water level sign.
“This is not connected to drought,” wrote Walsh in one of his email campaigns to elected officials. “This is about taking away much-needed therapeutic recreation from the veterans, low-income, subsistence fishers, hikers, and families in our region, for a one-time water grab and a mud pit at the foot of the Loveland Dam.”