Frankie Read stood on the sandy bottom of Lake Morena last week and surveyed the view. All around her, where millions of gallons of water used to be, once-hidden rocks stood tall and dusty in the sun. On the far bank, the effect of recent draining was plain. About 30 feet below what was once the reservoir's edge a new, muddy shoreline has emerged. Nearby, the village boat ramp no longer reaches the water.
"As you can see, we're walking underwater," Mrs. Read, an organic gardener and eight-year resident of Lake Morena Village, said as she kicked silt from her boots. Like many of her neighbors in the southeast San Diego County hamlet, she usually describes the lake in terms of what used to be.
Before the city of San Diego transferred nearly 2.8 billion gallons from Lake Morena into a neighboring reservoir, Barrett Lake, the water was blue. Now, it's turquoise, so laden with algae in some areas that visitors smell the odor before they reach the shore. Before March, when the three months of draining began, parents didn't worry about letting their children swim in the 1,100-acre, 144-foot lake. Now, parents caution their children not to get stuck in the mud.
Today, Lake Morena is 440 acres and 114 feet deep, and John Lyons-Lake Morena Regional Park, once a magnet for fishermen, campers and rare birds alike, is drawing fewer visitors. At the Express Quick Mart at the center of town, bait and tackle sales have slowed to a trickle. And it's been months since anyone has seen the pair of endangered American bald eagles that used to nest on a granite bluff overlooking the lake.
"When (the city) took the lake, everyone just thought this area was deadville," said Dorothy Tobin, who runs a horse farm near the park's entrance, about 8 miles from the Mexican border. "The herons are gone, and most of the hawks. And the economy has dried up."
Throughout the draining, which ended in June, San Diego officials said the transfer of water was necessary to reduce Lake Morena's high evaporation rate. The lake, part of a three-reservoir system designed to serve San Diego in case of emergency, supplies water downstream to Lake Barrett and Otay Reservoir, where a filtration plant is situated. Draining the lake, officials said, was essential to the greater good.
Loss of Recreation for San Diegans
Townspeople point out, however, that the shrinking of Lake Morena is more than a small-town tragedy. According to county figures, of the 300,000 people who camped, boated and fished around the lake last year, 80% were from the city of San Diego.
"The city has really hurt San Diegans themselves, and the people don't even know it," said Richard Leach, the president of the Lake Morena-Campo Chamber of Commerce. "It's not just our lake, it's their lake, too."
Environmental activists worry that the fate of Lake Morena, once one of the region's principal stopovers for migratory birds, may establish a dangerous precedent.
"Reservoirs are one of the few things man constructs that have the capability to improve the environment," said Bobbie Moran, the Sierra Club's wildlife chairman. "The question is, if you create a habitat that attracts endangered species, do you have the right to destroy it? In the creation of environmental policy, the draining of reservoirs has fallen between the cracks."
The Sierra Club maintains that, because reservoirs enhance the environment, their drainage should be regulated under the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires that state and local agencies complete environmental impact studies for projects that may alter the project area.
That view has been seconded by state attorneys who, at the request of Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), analyzed whether the environmental act pertains to city water management. Their 1988 finding: the state would have ample grounds to challenge San Diego's disruption of Lake Morena. As yet, however, the state has not undertaken such a challenge.
County officials call the city's drainage policy indefensible.
"The city has no water management plan," said Dianne Jacob, chief of staff for county Supervisor George Bailey. "It has never made any sense to us why they're draining Lake Morena."
Under a 1970 agreement with the county, however, the city of San Diego owns the lake's water rights and may drain it to 98.5 feet, about 15 feet lower than its current level. The city has maintained that, although an environmental impact study is required before filling a reservoir, no such study need be done to drain one. So far, that approach has been upheld in the courts.
In February, Superior Court Judge William C. Pate ruled that the lake is a city-operated reservoir and that draining it is an administrative function that does not require state reviews. In March, a lawyer representing the Lake Morena residents appealed that decision, but the appeal was rejected.