'They might want to consult history," Jim Brown says of city officials who are trying to overhaul the San Diego Water Department's reservoir recreation program. Brown served as the program's director from 1974 through 2003 and is one of many local residents who worry that the City's efforts may end up ruining a regional treasure. The Water Department's webpage advertises the program as follows: "The public is provided supervised recreational access to all of the City's reservoirs for a variety of traditional outdoor activities, including fishing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, hiking, picnicking, waterfowl hunting...waterskiing, jet skiing and windsurfing."
Various selections of the recreational activities are offered at nine lakes in the San Diego reservoir system: Hodges, Miramar, and Murray, within San Diego; Sutherland, northeast of Ramona; Barrett, El Capitan, and San Vicente, in East County; and Upper and Lower Otay, east of Chula Vista.
Last summer the Water Department sounded an alarm when it announced plans to get out of the recreation business by June 30, 2007. Director Jim Barrett made the decision after a San Diego County Grand Jury report criticized a "service level agreement" his department made in 2003 with the Park and Recreation Department to operate concession stands at seven of the city's reservoirs. The stands, according to the report, sold bait, beverages, and snacks, and rented boats. They provided park use-permits, processed boat reservations and fishing licenses, enforced lake rules, and assisted the Water Department with unspecified lake maintenance. But the stands had lost $1.9 million over the previous two years. "This is another example," said the report, "of the draining of enterprise funds to support activities more appropriately paid from the General Fund." As soon as Mayor Sanders became aware of the report, titled "Service Level Agreements Equal Back Door Funding," he responded by shutting down the Park and Recreation concession stands.
The Water Department's Barrett argued his case to get out of the recreation business by saying he wanted to restrict his department's future efforts to its essential task, providing San Diego with drinking water. The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote last July, "Barrett, who has been on the job for just over a month, said he hadn't been able to determine why the Water Department ever got involved in lake recreation."
The concessions problem and who should run reservoir recreation, however, are two different issues the city seems to be conflating. The grand jury report did not recommend that the reservoir recreation program be taken from the Water Department. It did recommend that the mayor and city council "immediately reduce the multi-million dollar financial losses to the [Water Department] and [Park and Recreation Department] in the operation of concession stands...." Although many lake visitors say they can live without concessions at the lakes, they feel Water has done a good job running the overall reservoir recreation program. A 1993 city council policy called the program "a secondary but highly valuable byproduct of the reservoir system," adding that the city originally intended the activities to operate "on a self-sustaining basis with user fees offsetting all associated costs of the program." The policy acknowledged, however, that more recent "non-revenue producing community use activities and access" make it "no longer possible or equitable for special interest users to bear the financial burden of the entire City Lakes Recreation Program." To supplement the fees collected for fishing, hunting, waterskiing, and other activities, the policy authorized the use of "general water rates...to offset all costs associated with basic levels of public access, community usage and related grounds and facility maintenance."
To learn a little history, I visit Jim Brown's Tierrasanta home, where I first ask about the evolution of concessions at the city's lakes. "In the very early days," he tells me, "people like Colonel Ed Fletcher and John D. Spreckels owned the reservoirs. That was before the city got involved in securing its own water supply. The city's water department actually began in 1901 when it bought the distribution system, including pipes and horse carts and other ways of moving water at that time. In 1913 the city decided that, in addition to the distribution system, they should have the water resources themselves. So that resulted in a condemnation process. Eventually the parties agreed on a settlement and the city could say, 'We own these reservoirs.'
"Well, Spreckels used to keep a caretaker out there, and the caretaker had to be paid a fee to keep an eye on things. And then fishing began at the lakes, as did hunting and camping. These were things people wanted to do. So the caretakers were told to run a program and collect, say, 50 cents a person. The operator is saying, 'I can pay this guy less if he's got this side income that I allow him to take.' So you had people like Seth Swenson at Lake Morena, a famous keeper. His wife was a good cook, and they had a spare room and could have people staying up there in a little bed-and-breakfast operation providing for the fishermen, including selling bait. And if you go out today to Otay Lakes County Park, you'll find that one bedroom of the ranger's residence there was the old Spreckels fishing and hunting lodge."
Brown thinks that in the years after the city took over in 1913, a formal separation of the reservoir keepers from concessionaires took place. After the separation, the concessions operated as private businesses. But in 2003 the most recent concessionaire cited difficulty making money and canceled its contract with the City. The Water Department then entered into the service level agreement with the Park and Recreation Department to continue operating the concession stands. The recent losses, not to mention projected future losses, that so upset the grand jury are the result of Park and Recreation's concession operations in 2004 and 2005. The City's choice of Park and Recreation to run concession stand operations bothered Brown, and a general sense that he was no longer being heard prompted him to retire in 2003 after 29 years as the recreation program's head.