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Lake Arrowhead Is Driest Ever Going Into Summer

Resources: Four years of drought have taken a toll, and rising water use has made matters worse.

June 09, 2002|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ralph Wagner edges his boat around Lake Arrowhead's shallow rim and grimaces. In this privately owned playground of wealthy lowlanders and retirees, hundreds of boat docks are high and dry in the muck.

On the north shore's exclusive coves, the lushly landscaped mansions sit far from the water's edge, their forlorn piers ringed by sprouting marsh grass. Some homeowners on one shallow bay have moved their docks closer to the water so many times they've come close to touching noses with their neighbors on the other side.

Lake Arrowhead has never been drier heading into the summer season. And the worst is yet to come: Now nearly 13 feet below normal, the lake is expected to lose at least six more vertical feet by September's end.

The dry spell has spurred an unprecedented conservation plan that soon could force fines on water scofflaws. It has prompted the public water and sewer agency that serves Arrowhead Woods to search for a secondary water source to supplement the San Bernardino Mountains lake. And, it is bringing trouble to a paradise defined by entitlement.

"It's the worst it's been since the lake filled in 1922," said Wagner, a civil engineer who helped form the homeowners' Arrowhead Lake Assn. nearly a quarter of a century ago and serves on its board. "It's too important to ignore."

Unlike surrounding San Bernardino Mountains communities, which rely on wells drilled deep into the cracked mountain granite and supplement their supply with state water, Arrowhead Woods' 7,600 homes and businesses rely on lake water alone for drinking and other uses. And no one else has a legal right to touch it.

Residents call it a blessing and a right. Now it also has become a burden.

Arrowhead Woods was developed in the 1920s and burgeoned in later years under the ownership of wood and paper conglomerate Boise Cascade. Cary Grant learned to water ski on these waters. Liberace owned a home here, lining his boat dock with decorative piano keys. And a steady stream of celebrities and retired executives have sought refuge in gated lakefront enclaves. More modest cabins, built in earlier years, also dot the shoreline.

Since the beginning, only Arrowhead Woods homeowners have had access to the reservoir, and today they must join the Arrowhead Lake Assn. to go boating. Weekend tourists can take a guided jaunt around the lake, but are not permitted to venture out on their own.

Four years of drought have taken a toll, and increased water consumption has made matters worse. Since 1975, annual water use has tripled, outpacing population growth sixfold, said Gary Valladao, general manager of the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District.

San Bernardino County planning officials say they are processing more proposed development projects for Lake Arrowhead than ever--complete with lush lawns and landscaping.

"People come up here to escape and not think about mundane things like water," said Wagner, who doubts that the conservation measures will hold.

Rob Perrin's business, Kiwi Docks, is moving about eight docks a day as the water level falls, he said. About 500 of the lake's 2,500 docks are already mud-bound, and that number is sure to rise. Many docks can't be moved any farther, setting off a scramble to find boat slips for lease at prices that, in some cases, have nearly doubled to as much as $4,500 for the season.

Though some residents are happy to offer a slice of shoreline for another dock, Perrin has encountered hostile homeowners who believe they own the beach rights and have threatened litigation.

Chris Wallace, a Newport Beach engineer whose family has kept a house on the lake since the 1920s, is among the lucky ones: He has a friend with an extra dock slip. Others, like retired construction magnate Eugene Yeager and his wife, Billie, have allowed neighbors to side-tie their boats onto their dock, one of the few that remains usable in upscale Rainbow Point.

The bad news hasn't even sunk in yet with many Arrowhead Woods residents, more than half of whom live here part time. The yacht club opened its doors just this weekend, and many residents will arrive in coming weeks--just in time to find their $350 annual dock bill from the Arrowhead Lake Assn. in the mail and their dock in the mud. "That's when the hollering will start," Wagner said.

To be sure, the lake--still nearly 170 feet deep in places and at least 85% full--is far from empty. Real estate is booming, with sales of lakefront homes running at a record pace, said Bruce Block, Coldwell Banker's managing broker. And Tom Houske, who runs the water ski school his father-in-law founded in the 1940s, expects his business to pick up because so many residents won't have their own boats in the water.

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