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Water Deal Could Sink Track's Future

Land use: The popular motocross raceway may close as early as July as Irvine Lake capacity is called into use for emergency storage.

April 16, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A popular but controversial motocross track at Irvine Lake appears to be headed for the drink.

The track, which was built in the dry lake bed without county, state or federal permits, probably will be out of business by summer because of a local water district's pending agreement to store more water at the lake.

A draft agreement to import as much as 5,000 acre-feet of "emergency water" for at least two years was completed April 5 between the Serrano Water District and the Metropolitan Water District.

A final version could be signed by month's end.

"If the Metropolitan Water District agreement is signed, which I'm pretty sure it will be, they [the track] will be out of business," said David Noyes, general manager of the Serrano Water District, which co-owns the lake with the Irvine Ranch Water District and currently manages recreational activities there with the Irvine Co.

Depending on how fast water is piped in, the track "could be out of operation as early as July, or as late as September," Noyes said.

Brad Etter, a co-owner of the off-road motorcycle racetrack, said that although he had always known there was a risk the course would be submerged, he still was hoping to stay open, depending on how much and how fast emergency water was brought in. "The water district's No. 1 purpose is water," Etter said. "We've recognized since Day One that we're in a lake bottom. We're aware that the water district is going to have to bring in more for emergency levels, but I don't think it's been determined what effect that will have on us."

Noyes said that although he would like to see the track continue, there was little chance it could stay open once the full emergency supply is brought in.

He said if there were extremely cool weather this summer, or if a pipe break or outage somewhere else caused MWD to use the emergency Irvine Lake water, there is a slim chance the track could be saved.

More likely, piping in so much water will flood the course, which was bulldozed around willow tree stands in a sandy, dry arm of the lake off Santiago Canyon Road.

Track Had Been Billed as Temporary

The track, which opened in September, was billed from the start as a temporary operation. Winter rains were expected to wash it away, but one of the driest winters in decades extended the season far longer than expected. The lake now is less than half full, Noyes said.

Etter and the other owners would now like to see the course open on an annual basis during the dry season, he said.

The track, which runs five days a week, draws hundreds of weekend riders from across the region who have vocally defended its right to operate.

But it has been criticized by area activists and county planners, who say it was built and opened without proper county, state and federal reviews.

Serrano Water district officials and the track operators have argued they are operating legally under the lakes' 1941 general recreational permit.

County planning officials briefly shut the site down last fall, saying grading and environmental permits had not been obtained before construction. The county issued temporary use permits from November through February, after a grading and erosion plan was submitted. Those permits have expired, but the track remained open, awaiting discussion and a possible vote by the Board of Supervisors.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said the agency has asked Saddleback Motors to complete studies this spring on possible improper loss of the endangered gnatcatcher.

Etter said those studies were being completed. He said that since the track was completely in the lake bed, there was no habitat for species that could have been lost.

The Irvine Co., which originally built Irvine Lake, alternates management of recreational activities there with the Serrano Water District, and shares profits. The company plans to build as many as 4,000 homes in the vicinity, but a spokesman declined to say whether it would like the racetrack to continue long-term.

"We don't know if this would be compatible with development plans or not," said John Christensen. "But that question is probably moot now given the impending water management situation with Serrano and MWD."

MWD sells water to smaller districts across Southern California.

Noyes said storing more water at the lake would improve water quality and guarantee a closer emergency supply for Orange County. He said fishing and boating on the lake will not only continue but improve.

The Serrano Water District, which serves Villa Park and certain parts of Orange, already is importing water into the lake because of the extremely dry winter, at the rate of about a foot a day.

But that is not expected to affect the racetrack.

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