SWD says blame for Irvine Lake closure

should be shared

June 2019

The Serrano Water District (SWD) board is under fire, with claims that it is holding up summer recreation at Irvine Lake.  

Not so, says the board. The story is tangled, much like fishing line on a bamboo pole.

A little history
Irvine Lake is primarily a reservoir, built to hold water for Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) and SWD customers. The Irvine Company (TIC), Carpenter Irrigation District and SWD entered into an agreement in 1928 to “use the waters for fishing, hunting, boating” with Carpenter and SWD sharing 50 percent of the rights, and TIC holding the other 50 percent. The Santiago Reservoir dam was built during the next decade, and a concession operator, under TIC, began operating “fishing, boating and other recreational amusement activities” in 1941. 

Carpenter transferred all of its rights to TIC in December 1970. As a result, TIC held 75 percent of the lake recreation rights, and SWD held 25 percent. TIC subsequently transferred its water and land rights – but not the recreation rights – to IRWD. 

In 1993, it was agreed that SWD would manage the lake’s recreational activities. It expanded the facilities, including recreational boating and fishing. There was a small concession stand, well-known for its juicy burgers; on-site camping and an RV storage site. 

 The lake was well-stocked with fish; many kids learned to fish there, and many adults spent leisure time there, vying for the largest catch. 

At one time, TIC had proposed a residential development around Santiago Reservoir, but by 2014, it had abandoned the project, and proposed to grant Orange County the land rights, which included 75 percent of the recreational water rights, and the land surrounding Irvine Lake. In 2016, TIC gave SWD notice to close out the storage site, shutter the little café, remove the docks and all concessions. SWD responded, requesting a six-month extension of the recreation activity, and offering a long-term lease of SWD’s recreation rights to OC Parks, in exchange for compensation. TIC rejected the request; SWD concluded recreation activities.

All activity at the lake ceased at that time.

Negotiations continue
Since that juncture, SWD, IRWD and OC Parks have continued negotiations, ultimately ending with the Orange County Grand Jury weighing in on “Re-Opening Irvine Lake, A Win-Win for Taxpayers and Outdoor Enthusiasts.” 

SWD’s primary focus is water storage for ratepayers and the use of any net revenue from its recreation rights to offset costs for maintenance and replacement of capital investments in lake infrastructure. It hopes to continue that income stream. As co-owner of the land beneath Irvine Lake and the water rights, SWD shares the infrastructure costs with IRWD. OC Parks estimates $5 million is required for improvements, habitat restoration, trail construction and maintenance, and would, of course, prefer that SWD revenues be limited. Though IRWD is not a party to recreation rights, it does have a right of approval regarding water use rights and water quality. All parties acknowledge that a stable water level is desirable.

The Grand Jury findings encourage SWD and OC Parks to resolve the “impasse” and come to terms on the water-based recreation rights.