'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.
"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."
But Councilman Jim Madaffer made sure to distance himself from the statement. He did make the motion to have general-fund money authorized for relieving the Water Department of reservoir recreation costs. But Madaffer said he did not agree with "moving Park and Rec employees, who are already spread so thin throughout the city, into our lake areas, especially Lake Murray. If you want to see half of District Seven down here in the council chambers, that is what will happen if this [idea] goes forward." Madaffer remarked that "we already have able Water Department employees" to run the recreation program. And he suggested that city funds could be used to pay the department, making sure that water rate payers don't subsidize the program in the future.
"And how do we know," asks Dorothy Leonard, "that Park and Recreation would do better?" Leonard is a member of the Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation board. Lake Murray is part of the park. Leonard's colleague on the board, Nancy Acevedo, is more direct. "To have Park and Recreation in charge of something at the Water Department reservoirs will involve two departments with separate chains of command trying to work together. That will lessen cooperation among city employees in getting the job done at the lakes." Acevedo notes that it would cause a duplication of trucks and other equipment at the lakes too.
Jim Brown agrees, adding that history warns against letting Park and Recreation run the reservoir recreation program again. The Water Department ran the program from 1913 to 1966, he says, when the City turned it aover to Park and Recreation. By 1981, however, Park and Recreation was being forced to make cuts in the program. In response to complaints from residents, the city's administration and council gave it back to the Water Department, asking Brown to continue as reservoir recreation director.
"We used to use a job order system," he says, "where employees would keep track of how much of their time went to water-supply tasks and how much to recreation." As far as Brown knows, the department still does that, allowing for the future possibility that it could charge the city's general fund for public-recreation expenses.
To emphasize that the Water Department rather than Park and Recreation is the better choice for running reservoir recreation, Brown wrote in a short paper he prepared as a possible editorial: "The Water Department employees who [have been operating lakes recreation] are not recreation leaders in any sense of the word. They do not organize, teach, lead or officiate recreational activities.
"They are in fact," Brown continues, "the caretakers of the reservoirs, the security buffer that oversees the public's access and use to insure that our water supply reservoirs and facilities are protected to meet Water Department requirements and standards. They primarily open and close the gates so that the public can lead itself in recreation, regulate the public's use to comply with applicable regulations, check permits, issue rental boats, check private boats, maintain equipment and grounds, take reservoir readings, patrol the reservoir and provide information and assistance to the public, among other duties associated with the operation and protection of the water supply reservoir in their charge."
But a City-planned "community participation and public outreach effort" indicates that the Sanders administration has its mind made up. The staff report for the January 22 city council meeting promises, "A community forum will be scheduled to provide greater clarity to stakeholders and obtain feedback as the Reservoir Recreation program transitions from the Water Department to Park and Recreation."
In a conciliatory vein the staff report also notes, "The reservoir recreation program is important to many residents in the San Diego region, and should be preserved to the greatest extent possible." With the Sanders administration now looking to make every budget cut it can in the midst of San Diego's pension-fund crisis, those residents are worrying that the "greatest extent" may not be very great.