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Talk of Pumping Agitates Lakefront

People who live near Lake Nacimiento fear the effects of proposed water projects.

June 09, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

LAKE NACIMIENTO -- Evenings, the Hunsbergers like to sit under the spreading live oak that grows up through their deck of Brazilian ironwood and take in the blue sanctity of their private lake.

It is, in a word, "paradise," said Mary Ruth Hunsberger, a 76-year-old woman who knows a thing or two about blessed places. Before her first husband died, she enjoyed an ocean view in Pacific Palisades.

But the Dragon, a nickname owed to the 17-mile-long lake's sinuous configuration on the map, is special. In the morning, the Hunsbergers hear quail picking through the yellow grasses. At night they watch wild turkeys galumphing along Woody Point Road.

Lately, though, the Hunsbergers and their neighbors along the shores of Lake Nacimiento have begun feeling like the only child with a milkshake at a party. Suddenly, everywhere they look, it seems someone has a straw ready to slurp up their bit of heaven.

Growth in Paso Robles is reviving talk of building a pipeline to the lake to stop over-pumping of the city's wells. San Luis Obispo County is considering claiming a historic right to water. Most worrisome, however, is the approval by landowners in nearby Monterey County of an $18.5-million project to take water from Nacimiento and nearby Lake San Antonio and use it to replenish aquifers in Salinas Valley, which are threatened by ocean water seeping inland.

If everything goes as some fear, in dry years especially, the Hunsbergers might have to put wheels on their pontoon boat for the gourmet meals with friends that they jokingly refer to as "booze cruises." The Hunsbergers worry that Lake Nacimiento will go as dry as the parched brown hills that separate this tranquil valley from the famed Hearst Ranch on the coast.

In perpetually thirsty California, it's a virtual truism that, when water stops flowing, lawsuits start gushing. This situation is no different.

An organization representing the 3,500 property owners at Nacimiento has filed suit, as has the lake's resort operator, Dan Heath.

"When they wipe out the market value of my businesses, I expect to be compensated," Heath said. He projects his potential losses at as much as $200 million over the life of his leases of campgrounds, marinas, stores and other businesses at San Antonio and Nacimiento.

He can't even sell and move on. "I had businesses worth $25 million to $30 million a year ago," Heath said. "Now, I couldn't find somebody to take them from me."

Some longtime Nacimiento homesteaders are hoping all this anxiety is an overreaction. They point out that the reservoir's level always has risen and fallen with the rainfall. After a couple of dry years in a row, the lake is only about 60% full, with a thick brown skirt at the edge of the water. Hal Hunsberger said the current depth of the water in front of his house is about 65 feet. The impending water projects could drop it 20 to 25 feet, he estimated.

Despite all the grim talk property values have held. Mary Ruth Hunsberger said a lake-front home built by her son-in-law recently sold for $1.2 million.

"I'm fairly sanguine about the future," said Jim Irving, a local real estate salesman. The trouble, he said, is that "nobody knows exactly what's going to happen. The uncertainty is the driving force behind the lawsuits."

Far from major population areas, along a winding piece of asphalt west of Paso Robles, Lake Nacimiento occupies a special niche. Pleasure boaters travel long distances to sample its miles of open water.

It is a favorite destination for fishermen who prize its white bass, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill and crappie.

Nacimiento also has a reputation as one of the finest water skiing lakes in California. One reason is that its 165 miles of shoreline features innumerable coves and cloistered channels. If the wind is up in Bee Rock Cove, it's easy to find water as smooth as porcelain off Running Deer Ranch or near Dip Creek. The UC Santa Barbara water skiing team practices on the lake.

What makes the situation at Lake Nacimiento unusual is that its residents have no say over the water.

Although the lake is in San Luis Obispo County, the water belongs to Monterey County, which built the dam to create the lake half a century ago. As a result, when the Monterey County Water Resources Agency put its $18.5-million bond measure on the ballot in March, the people who would be most directly affected by the project could not vote.

Curtis Weeks, general manager of the Monterey agency, said he understands the concerns of boaters and Nacimiento residents, but notes that the lakes were not created for recreation or to bedazzle retirees in lakefront villages. They were designed to deal with the long-standing problem of seawater intrusion into wells serving farmers in the Salinas Valley. Weeks said ocean water has moved six miles inland and now directly underlies 24,000 acres.

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