Group proposes plan to refill evaporating Atascadero Lake

At the end of July, Atascadero Lake had very little water left.
At the end of July, Atascadero Lake had very little water left. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Atascadero Lake has nearly dried up, and a group of residents wants it back.

An official plan emerged earlier this month when Friends of Atascadero Lake sought and gained approval from the Atascadero Mutual Water Co., the nonprofit water utility that distributes water to Atascadero, to divert private well water to the withered lake bed.

But the group still needs city and state permits before the project can happen.

Friends of Atascadero Lake, made up of residents, wants to drill a well at a residence on the 8300 block of Portola Road and pump the water through a 1,100-foot-long pipeline they would install and connect to the lake.

The well would be a fractured rock well, said John Neil, water company general manager.

That means it doesn’t overlie the same declining groundwater basin which would cause other wells in the North County to dry up. Instead, it draws water from the cracks between rocks beneath the property. New wells are not allowed to be drilled over the basin, Neil said.

Estimated costs for the group’s well and pipeline were not immediately available. The group could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

The well would also be used to supplement the lake during low rainfall months and help counter water loss over the hot summer months, according to minutes from a Friends meeting.

While the city owns the lake, the proposal made its way to the Atascadero Mutual Water Co. first because the Friends group wants to divert well water from one property to another, something the water company doesn’t usually allow.

The city hasn’t received a proposal for the project, nor has it researched or taken a stance on it, city officials said, but city staff members plan to meet with the Friends group Friday to talk about the idea.

The Atascadero City Council has consistently said the city will wait for rain to refill the 30-acre lake naturally because money is tight and water is scarce.

Atascadero Lake has suffered in the statewide drought: Declining water levels caused a mass fish die-off this year and reduced the city’s tourism icon to a puddle.

Residents have expressed dismay with the shrinking city attraction, with some even offering on social media to stretch their garden hoses into the lakebed to help out.

Mayor Tom O’Malley told The Tribune that while he would prefer to let nature run its course, he likes the idea of the community coming together on the issue.

“There is no simple answer,” he said. “Do I like the well idea? Yes. But do I think it’s the best idea for right now? No, I don’t.”

O’Malley said he believes any solution that involves pumping water into the dried-up lakebed would be difficult to maintain because of evaporation conditions in the season’s intense heat.

“I wouldn’t want to get people too excited because it would be hard to keep up in a drought,” he said.

Also, the City Council is focusing on taking advantage of the emptied lake to dredge its murky floor. Scraping the dead plant material and decades of bird feces from the lakebed helps make the lake deeper and cleaner for when the rain returns.

The south end of the lake was dredged last fall, and the city is currently working to secure a second state permit to finish the job.

“I think there’s a real good spirit of cooperation in Atascadero, and it does help,” O’Malley said of the Friends’ plan. “We need several good ideas to get the lake to where people want it to be.”