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By George Barnett

Photo:  Cabin with former lakefront view now overlooks a barren wasteland.

July 13, 2016 (Lake Morena) -- East County Magazine did a recent piece on Lake Morena and whether water levels were maintained too low to be a viable source of water for fire-fighting.  In the article, Billie Jo Jannen is quoted as saying if there’s a safety issue it needs to be examined.  Billie Jo is quite right.

But this is not the first time Lake Morena has been so low.  As an occasional fisherman out there, I’ve seen the shoreline covered with dead fish as the City transferred water down-system to the reservoirs closer in to the City.  I once asked the City (maybe 6 years ago) as to its policy.  It was then, and still seems to be, to transfer water to the final destination reservoirs closest to consumers, and that is driven by costs.  Maximizing local groundwater is half the cost of buying water from the Metropolitan Water District.

To me, the City’s principle problem is not enough local reservoirs.  The City did, through the County Water Authority, did raise the height of the dam at San Vicente effectively doubling the water storage capacity.  When that work was finished, I was told by the City that we would see water levels in El Capitan (in Alpine) fall dramatically as the City transferred that water to the expanded San Vicente as the City’s primary storage.  And it happened.

Below is a chart of the City’s reservoirs.  It shows the significant importance of the expanded San Vicente reservoir; and it shows that the reservoirs closer-in to consumers are kept relatively full as an operational procedure.  It also shows that the reservoirs farther out from consumers are kept relatively operationally empty.

Across San Diego County, the amount of reservoir storage capacity is many multiples less per consumer than in say Tarrant-Dallas counties that service the Dallas/Fort Worth region (with about the same population as in San Diego county).  I did the numbers maybe 4 years ago and recollect it was a factor of 10.  In one rainy year, that Texas region collects rainfall into its reservoirs equal to the entire reservoir storage capacity in San Diego County.  That regional government has a water strategy, a plan, and budgets to execute the plan.

How much storage capacity does the City of San Diego actually have?  It has a calculated theoretical capacity of 40 months of City water consumption based on the May 2016 figures.  But even after a rainier than usual spring, the City reservoirs are a bit less than half full on a collective basis.  Based on May 2016 consumption, the City has at most 20 months of water supply.  Without the expansion of San Vicente by raising the dam height, storage supply might be well less than a year.  I have not “run the numbers” but I expect that adding into the figures the county unincorporated water reservoirs and demand, the entire region is in a really severe problem, and that it is being hidden from us by politicians; especially those in Sacramento.  Having maybe 30 different water agencies across the county and its cities can’t possible facilitate rational planning or action.  Some like Padre Dam and Helix are trying to do something.  But looking at the websites of many of the others, their plans are to suck the teats of the state.

Frankly, intuitively, we are in a water crisis.  It has been brought about over decades; not from drought primarily (which is but a red flag the public can “see” because politicians shout about it all the time).  It is brought about by no long term strategic planning at the state level as the population has burgeoned.  It speaks to our region having become beholden on the state for its water supply.  The state has built minimal water infrastructure for decades.  And Governor Brown’s concerns lie more with the snail darter and other “environmental” uses of water, than on people.  At least some local agencies are beginning to address expanding water resources on their own; raising reservoir dam heights, more importation from non-state sources, coastal desal plants and water recycle demonstration efforts by a few of the local, smaller agencies.

The people living in Morena Village have indeed been victimized, beginning a century ago when Lake Morena and Barrett Lake came into the City’s hands.  There will be no respite to those folks in terms of water-related lifestyle issues until the City does not need local lake waters as a supply priority.

On the other hand, a good hard look at public safety issues and fire-fighting needs to be taken.

The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration,contact

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