"And it's an interesting thing to me," says Brown, "that this city, which now seems so prepared to walk away from running its recreation program, fought earnestly to have it. What happened when the city took over these water-supply reservoirs [in 1913] was that the state of California looked down and said, 'Now that the reservoirs are operated by a municipality' -- which the state had more control over than it did the private sector -- 'now that these are operated by a city of the state, we have to tell them there is no more public access.' This did not sit well. The lakes had a history of being the locations where real movers and shakers met to make deals. More deals, it was said, were made in a duck blind or a fishing boat at Lower Otay Lake than in attorneys' offices downtown."
San Diego resisted the state's attempt to restrict access to the lakes, and an agreement was reached allowing the recreation activities to continue if certain state standards were followed. "And that's how the San Diego lakes program started to be recognized as the pioneer in the country, if not the world, on the concept of multiple use of water-supply reservoirs." The city's water department continues to use similar wording on its website: "The City of San Diego," it reads, "is widely recognized as a pioneer in the multiple use (for recreation) of water supply reservoirs."
But reflecting the Water Department's new attitude, director Jim Barrett was quoted in the July Union-Tribune article as saying, "The reasons I've heard [for getting involved in lakes recreation] are like folklore shrouded in myth.... I'm from the East Coast and recreation wasn't allowed on drinking-water reservoirs there."
Last fall Barrett and Richard Haas, the mayor's deputy chief for public works, agreed to a meeting with disgruntled fisherman Kelly Salmans, president of the San Diego Council of Bass Clubs. Salmans, an El Cajon resident, was angry that the Water Department had allowed water levels at San Vicente Reservoir to drop so low that fishermen couldn't use docks to launch their boats. During the meeting, Barrett said that he didn't any longer have to hear Salmans's complaints since Salmans is a county, not a city, resident.
According to Jim Brown, who attended the meeting, Salmans asked, "What am I to tell the bass fishermen I represent, that they're going to lose fishing on the lakes? I'll encourage my people to write you letters appealing what you're doing." To which Barrett replied, says Brown, "Make sure the letters have a San Diego return address, because if they have addresses outside the city, the letters are going straight into the trash." Salmans tells me later that he reminded Barrett that the fishermen aren't freeloading. They pay for permits to fish on the lakes. "And the bass in the reservoirs," Salmans says he argued, "bring fishermen to San Diego from all over the world."
"In their defense," says Brown, "Barrett and Haas were trying to make the point that San Diego has problems enough without having to worry about someone outside the city who is not a taxpayer or water rate payer. They are trying to make whole a system that has them pretty well baffled. I was surprised and shocked that Barrett spoke to Kelly the way he did. I will give him credit for candor, however. On the other hand, it's rough saying things like that to someone who has fished those lakes for years."
Barbara Cleves Anderson is another vocal critic of the direction the City seems to be taking on the reservoirs. A San Carlos resident, Anderson is president of Friends of Lake Murray, whose members volunteer their time to, among other things, clean up trash around the lake. For years Anderson has been an early-morning jogger around Lake Murray. She says that last fall Richard Haas told her that the City is considering ways of charging fees for basic access to the lake.
"What I worry about," she tells me, "are the numerous older people who walk the lake daily. I remember a time long ago when a fence was put up around Lake Murray and turnstiles were set up at both lake entrances. If the Park and Recreation Department takes over the lakes, I worry they'll charge fees. And once they get the fees in place, you know they'll start raising them. Many of our older people at the lake can't afford that every day."
Jim Brown says he is a proponent of a "pay-as-you-go" approach to financing lakes recreation. He tells me, however, that it is a little extreme to ask everyone who walks onto reservoir property to pay a fee. "In the old days," he says, "the primary activities at the lakes were fishing, hunting, and camping. At Lake Murray today you might have 30 or 40 fishermen paying a fee while 1000 people are walking around the lake for fitness." And many are not city residents. People come to Lake Murray from La Mesa and to Lake Hodges from Escondido. That doesn't even take into account that six of San Diego's reservoirs lie not in the city but in the county. Brown favors a plan to seek assistance from other jurisdictions to help San Diego pay for lakes recreation.
Whether there will be money in the general-fund budget for the reservoir recreation program is now the hot topic. If the program is too expensive, will user fees be increased, or will some of the services be dropped? The City says it is currently engaged in a "business process reengineering" analysis of the problem.
At its January 22 meeting, the San Diego City Council voted to use general-fund money to reimburse Water $1,498,250 for the department's expenses in running lakes recreation in fiscal year 2007. In support of the funding resolution, a city staff report stated: "The reservoir recreation program can be most efficiently and effectively managed by the City's Park and Recreation Department. Park and Recreation will bring professional management and innovation to this unique operation. Recreation is not a core function of the Water Department."