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Locals Cast Their Hopes on New Lake

Nearby Riverside County towns are excited by the Diamond Valley fishing spot, but a lack of amenities disappoints many.

October 02, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Diamond Valley Lake, a massive drinking-water reservoir in Riverside County heralded as one of the best spots in the nation for bass fishing, is set to open Friday at first light.

In addition to luring fishermen, Hemet and other nearby towns are pinning their dreams on the glassy sapphire lake, which they hope will eventually create the next Branson, Mo., or Lake Tahoe. There's talk of adding a casino to rival the Pechanga Resort and Casino south of Temecula, along with a string of country-music dinner theaters.

"It's coming. We know it. We can feel it. It's in the air and it tastes good," said Diane Dial of the Hemet/San Jacinto Valley Chamber of Commerce. "We're on the map now."

That enthusiasm is tempered, however, by frustrated residents and business owners who said they were promised that the shoreline would include golf courses, hotels, swimming lagoons and shopping centers -- none of which have materialized. They're also upset about the long list of restrictions for using the lake that they fear will drive away tourists.

The lake was created by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and swimming, skiing and any other type of body contact is forbidden. Watercraft entering the water must be inspected, and boaters must have low-emission engines and can use only MTBE-free gasoline. No alcohol or smoking is allowed.

Michael Rowe, a longtime local Realtor and treasurer of the Winchester Homeowners Assn., accused the water district of painting pie-in-the-sky fantasies about lakeside development to win the support of residents.

"There's no question about it," Rowe said.

"They misled the community."

Water district officials concede that early planners may have created "exaggerated expectations," and they said they are in the process of creating a new master plan for lakeside development.

"We're taking our time," said the water board's chairman, Phillip J. Pace. "We want to do it right."The $2.1-billion lake is considered an engineering marvel, covering two mountain valleys with 260 billion gallons of water. Creating the three earthen dams that hold all of that water was the largest earthwork project in the nation, the district said. Holding more water than the Colorado River's Lake Havasu, it stretches 4 1/2 miles long and 2 miles wide, with an average depth of 200 feet.

The lake was stocked with 217 largemouth bass, which spawned and now number 400,000.

Wildlife biologists have also introduced smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, catfish, bluegill and redear sunfish.

Starting Friday, 250 boaters, plus 50 boat renters and scores of shoreline fishers will be allowed on the lake each day.

Local officials have been waiting for this for years.

"It's going to change everyone's life in Riverside County," said county Supervisor Jim Venable.

"This lake is absolutely the one thing that this whole area needed in order to move ahead."

Lori Van Arsdale, mayor of Hemet, agreed, and added, "We're very excited it's finally here. We've got to pinch ourselves. We've certainly anticipated it for an awful long time," she said.

"I'm ecstatic that we're finally able to get on the water."

However, Van Arsdale and other officials remain frustrated that the only way people can get out on the water is in inspected boats and kayaks. Van Arsdale can't understand why, since people swim, ski and float in inner tubes in the Colorado River, the source for more than three-fourths of the water in the lake.

Metropolitan officials say the restrictions are essential to protecting the water's purity.

"Diamond Valley Lake represents an important freshwater source for 18 million Southern Californians," said Bob Muir, spokesman for the water district. "Our board felt it was paramount that this source of water be protected."

The reservoir can provide the Southland with a six-month water supply in case the region is cut off from its main water sources -- the Colorado River and Northern California.

Early on, water district officials discussed the possibility of skiing and other recreational use of the lake, as well as many recreational amenities on the lake's shores. A 1996 brochure handed to nearby communities said golf and sports complexes, an RV park, campgrounds and an equestrian center would be opened years before the first fisherman baited his line.

None of these recreational facilities have been built.

"I think the planners [initially] hired to do this envisioned a Disneyland," Pace said. "That is not what we planned."

Two museums, six miles of trails and two trailheads are in the works, as is a master plan for the east and west ends of the lake. Water district officials hope to have the plan prepared in six to eight months.

Pace said that by 2004, he hopes to have the museums and trails open and construction underway of a 75-acre lake open to swimming and other recreational uses on the east end of the lake.

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