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— Merrilee Miller, a resident of Goleta, northwest of Santa Barbara, believes she has the right to vacation in a recreational vehicle on the banks of San Diego's Lake Murray. Or to plant banana trees near the shore, if she likes. That's because of ownership rights she and other members of her family say they have to the land there. But the City of San Diego maintains she cannot use the land, other than walking the public pathway around the lake or playing a round of golf on the Mission Trails Golf Course. Miller says her family owns the land where the 17th hole is located. The golf course now leases the land from the City.

By phone, Miller and I talk about how the situation came about. In the late 1800s, Miller's great uncle, Bruce Waring (Waring Road is named after him), bought property in eastern San Diego, including a canyon near La Mesa. In 1887, Waring's Junipero Land and Water Company entered into an easement agreement with the San Diego Flume Company.

"The easement agreement," says Miller, who has studied the property's history, "was that the San Diego Flume Company had the right to flood the property to a 100-foot depth. A small creek ran through the canyon. In the deal, my great uncle would get the right to obtain water to irrigate from the reservoir. He also had the right to use the land's remaining dry areas agriculturally, and as a park, all in exchange for letting them flood the deepest portion of the property. What he had done already was lease some of the property to a company that grew grapes."

In 1895, the San Diego Flume Company completed the earthen La Mesa Dam a little downstream. The company filled the reservoir with water from other parts of its water-delivery system, inundating much of Waring's property. The dam eventually weakened, especially after San Diego's catastrophic floods of 1916. Two years later, a bigger dam was built, allowing what is now Lake Murray to reach its current 85-foot average depth. "According to SanGIS [San Diego Geographic Information Source] maps," says Miller, "we still have 24 acres of exposed land, when the water is 95 feet deep. That's the same level where a spillway at the lake's southern end prevents the water from rising higher." The 24 acres are that land between the water's edge when the lake is 95 feet deep and when it is 100 feet deep.

But for many years, according to Miller, who is 53, municipal officials have been treating her family's land on the banks of Lake Murray as though the City owns it. In the early 1990s, Miller's older sister Marlene Dawson, a Washington State resident, corresponded at length with the City in an effort to change the situation. In the face of numerous conflicting responses, Dawson eventually gave up.

Last year, Miller took up the fight. She wanted to know how her family could get access to the exposed Lake Murray land. Lane MacKenzie, of San Diego's Real Estate Assets Department, responded in a letter dated August 2, 2006.

MacKenzie dealt with four issues. The first involved two specific sites Miller was claiming were on her family's property: two baseball fields on Lake Murray's western side and the 17th hole of Mission Trails Golf Course, above the reservoir's northern tip. "Although programs like Google Earth is a good reference tool," wrote MacKenzie, "their accuracy can be somewhat questionable. I have enclosed an aerial photo from the City's survey section, on which is depicted several contour lines." The 100-foot contour line "shows clearly that there are no ball fields or golf holes within its boundaries." The point is significant because the land higher than the water's edge at a lake depth of 100 feet would be outside the old Waring property line.

But "the aerial photo [MacKenzie] sent me is bogus," Miller writes me in an e-mail. "There is no official stamp to denote its authenticity. It does not match the San Diego County maps that prove the northern boundary of our property abuts Jackson Drive [several hundred yards above Lake Murray's tip].... There are clearly golf course encroachments on our property. Our property has clearly been incorporated into Lake Murray Park and Mission Trails Regional Park. Google Satellite photos attest to this fact, as does the SanGIS map."

"In MacKenzie's photo that you sent me," I ask, "what's that white rectangular area at the top? It looks like a piece of paper has been placed on the picture."

"The area where the 17th hole would be has been whited out," Miller replies.

The second point MacKenzie raised in his letter seems to express concerns for the safety of anyone camping out on the banks of Lake Murray. Citing a 1981 Army Corps of Engineers report, MacKenzie noted that "if the probable maximum flood were to occur at this reservoir the water would overlap the dam for a period of ten hours and by a maximum of one foot (Contour elevation 102 feet). [The report] further states that the spillway can pass about 75 percent of a probable maximum flood....

"The rights for inundation," MacKenzie continued, "have been exercised in the design of Murray Dam. The area between the 93 and 100 [foot] contour elevation is designed to be inundated if a probable maximum flow were to occur. Therefore, the City cannot vacate any portion of the existing easement."

Here MacKenzie seemed to mix up a flood-control easement with the easement right the City acquired to create and maintain a reservoir. Miller kept her eyes on the City's reservoir rights, which she supports. Realizing that Lake Murray's spillway is at the 95-foot contour line, or 536.5 feet above sea level, she contacted the California Department of Water Resources, Division of Safety of Dams, which then reported on its website that Lake Murray's capacity was 6085 acre-feet of water. At the 95-foot contour line, the dam's capacity would be 4818 acre-feet. Its capacity at the 100-foot contour line, or 542.5 feet above sea level, would be 6085 acre-feet. "The data the Division of the Safety of Dams currently has on file is erroneous," Miller writes me in late May, "and has been perpetuated for decades, because no one in San Diego ever bothered to correct it. MacKenzie is using this incorrect data to attempt to convince me that the dam's capacity is 6085 acre feet, rather than [4818] acre feet...." Chuck Wong, at the dam-safety division, "thanked me for sending him the correct data."

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