Vail Lake’s surface and shoreline are still these days, silenced by a low water level and storm damage that has restricted boat and vehicle access.
In contrast, lake issues are churning in the offices at the Temecula-area water district that spent $49.6 million nearly three years ago to buy 7,904 acres that enci
rcle the reservoir and regional recreation magnet.
Rancho California Water District officials are busy charting the future of the lake, the nearly 70-year-old dam that formed it and the future activities and conservation measures that will occur in, on and around it.
“There’s a lot of stuff up in the air right now,” Andrew Webster, RCWD chief engineer, said. His duties include planning the future of the 1,100-acre lake and its sensitive environs.
Meanwhile, the district officials have earmarked another surge of funds – $2.1 million this time around – to plan work on the dam and tackle some of the damage and deterioration that has occurred in the aging resort area over the past three decades.
This spending will come on the heels of the approximately $1.5 million dollars that the water district pumped into the lake and land since it took ownership.
RCWD serves a 100,000-acre area that is home to more than 150,000 people and encompasses Temecula and parts of Murrieta, French Valley, the Santa Rosa Plateau and the wine country.
The future of the lake and land will come into sharper focus this summer, which is when the water district expects to receive responses to a pair of queries it issued April 27. As those replies come in, the district will also cement plans to stretch the lifespan of the 132-foot tall dam that dates back to 1948.
District officials estimate that it will cost $34 million to make repairs and modifications to the dam, work that could begin in a few years.
The dam, lake and land have all played a key role in the region’s history.
The lake was created when a pioneer rancher spent $1 million to divert Temecula Creek flows for use by his cattle and crops. That decision and its aftermath sparked water rights litigation that still simmers.
In 1978, RCWD acquired the dam and the permanent rights to the water stored behind it. The district uses the dam to capture runoff and release flows into a valley basin below for percolation into groundwater supplies. Up to 40 percent of the district’s water supply has historically come from its vast underground supplies.
The district was interested in buying the land around the lake for decades. But a prominent developer and his partners moved first and snatched up a lakeside resort and much of the land around it in December 1997.
At the time of the developer’s purchase, the property included a shuttered recreational vehicle park. The deal included a campground and a resort-style complex that dates back to the 1960s and includes pools, miniature golf and food concessions.
The developer’s partnership also owned recreation rights to the lake, and fishing and camping memberships were sold. Numerous small- and large-scale community and commercial events, many with sports themes, were held at a Vail Lake amphitheater and the surrounding grounds.
The developer’s long-term vision, which was unveiled in late 2000, called for the construction of 5,172 homes, three golf courses, a yacht club, five wineries, stores and an executive retreat.
But that development plan fizzled, in part because of the presence of nearly 40 endangered or sensitive plants and animals that include the bald eagle, golden eagle and great blue heron.
The partnership’s effort to operate the lake and land as a resort foundered. The property spiraled into bankruptcy, and RCWD emerged as the owner.
RCWD’s main goal is to protect the supply and quality of the water in the lake located about 10 miles southeast of Temecula.
The district also plans to keep the area open to recreational uses, according to Webster and district documents.
For decades, the area has been a magnet to campers, mountain bikers, boaters, anglers, hikers and equestrians. Popular trails crisscross the property, and trophy-size fish have been pulled from the depths of the lake.
Those attractions have been spotlighted by key regional groups that include the San Diego Biking Association, the Rancho California Horseman’s Association and the Fallbrook Trails Council.
Concerns expressed by those groups and others are detailed in RCWD documents. Those groups, as well as scores of individuals, have noted that development is squeezing many regional recreation areas, and Vail Lake is a crucial piece of what’s left.
“Vail Lake is an oasis for everyone,” the biking group commented last year. “Vail Lake is a gem Southern California needs and deeply values.”
Fallbrook Trail Council leaders estimated that more than 25,000 hikers depend on Vail Lake and other trails in the region. They noted that recreation-oriented visitors buy gasoline, eat in local restaurants and shop in area stores.
But recreation uses have been sharply curtailed at the lake because of low water levels and storm damage last winter to a key bridge and road. Boating was halted in January when it became unsafe to launch boats.
The lake’s surface is now at about the 1,420-foot elevation level, Webster said. That’s 15 to 35 feet below the range that is deemed safe for lake access and use, he said.
“It (low water levels) makes it very hard to launch a boat,” Webster said in a recent telephone interview.
Camping is still occurring at the lake resort, but road access is limited due to winter storm damage.
RCWD is seeking funding for the road and bridge repairs that may be available as a result of a weather-related state of emergency that was declared in Riverside County.
The district put out a call April 27 for groups to signal their interest and qualifications to operate the recreational amenities, including boating and camping, and to oversee a program to create a conservation land bank for developers and public agencies.
The deadline for interested parties to respond to the requests for qualifications is July 13. When that deadline passes, district staff will analyze the submissions and make recommendations to RCWD directors.
District staff may recommend one or more prospective tenants, and it’s possible that the directors will move forward Aug. 10, and the district would enter an exclusive negotiation process with one or more of the prospective tenants.
Those negotiations could end in long-term deals that would help the district meet its long-term recreation, conservation and financial goals. Unspecified levels of environmental review would be required before the leases formally take effect, Webster said.
The 22-page recreation component seeks a qualified tenant for the lake’s resort and marina. The lease will include nearly 470 recreational vehicle spaces, the clubhouse, swimming pools, tennis court, horse stables, miniature golf course, basketball and pickle ball courts, workshop, boat launch, boat and RV storage facility and other buildings.
The tenant would oversee lake uses and have access to the property’s trails. The tenant would be required to rehabilitate and upgrade the resort and marina and bring an unspecified amount of revenue to the district.
Because the lake is used as a water source, swimming and wading will not be allowed, according to district documents.
The 17-page conservation and mitigation lease offering focuses on land outside the resort and marina boundaries and could also include the lake bottom, where sand and other sediment has accumulated since 1948.
The district and its conservation tenant could recoup some of Vail Lake’s purchase price by offering parts of the property to development companies that need to purchase mitigation credits.
Many cities and counties will allow developers to build on environmentally-sensitive sites if they agree to purchase, protect and maintain sensitive habitat elsewhere. Certain parcels of mitigation land can be worth $20,000 or more per acre depending on the number of threatened or endangered species that a site protects.
Experts say the potential value of a large mitigation bank can be in the tens of millions of dollars.
Sand and gravel dredged from the lake bottom could be another source of revenue for the district and its tenant, according to the lease offering.
A district report estimates that 2.5 million cubic yards of sediment has accumulated on the lake bottom.
In contrast, a dump truck can carry about nine cubic yards of sand and gravel. District officials have estimated that the lake sediment would stack five feet high if it were spread over 313 acres.
Removing the underwater sediment, which is 15 feet deep in some places, would increase the lake’s capacity by about 1,570 acre-feet. An acre-foot of water covers an acre to a depth of one foot. It totals about 326,000 gallons and is enough water to meet the needs of two families for more than a year.
District officials have estimated that it would cost about $40 million to dredge the sediment from the lake.
Webster said it is unknown when the future leases may be finalized or what types of services or work the potential tenants may opt to provide. Those answers will come when the district evaluates the July 13 submissions and decides how to move forward.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Webster said.