Is it time to dredge Laguna Lake?

San Luis Obispo's Laguna Lake in July.
San Luis Obispo's Laguna Lake in July. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo resident Rob Davidson laughed as he recalled watching a Subaru drive across Laguna Lake a few months ago.

“Someone called and complained,” he said, and shortly after, the city dropped a boulder onto the boat ramp to prevent other drivers from exploring the dry, cracked lakebed.

In past years, Davidson and neighbor John Smigelski, members of the Friends of Laguna Lake steering committee, have watched from their lakefront homes as boaters, fishermen, windsurfers and other visitors enjoy the water. Many residents view it as a unique, special resource. How many cities can boast of a lake within their borders?

“I just think it’s a miraculous asset for the city of San Luis Obispo,” said Craig Kincaid, a former member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission who lives along Oceanaire Drive, where many of the lakefront homes were built. “And while maybe a lot of people don’t use the lake,” he added, “people know the lake is there, and that gives them a sense of enjoyment because it’s all part of the great outdoors — that there’s open space in San Luis Obispo.”

But now the lake has dried up, save for some water in the southeastern arm of the lake near Madonna Road thanks to recent thunderstorms. Unlike last summer, when hundreds of carp died from lack of oxygen as the water disappeared, the stench of dead fish doesn’t permeate the air.

A carpet of green vegetation now grows up from portions of the cracked lakebed, where Smigelski’s grandchildren made a game of looking for golf balls that presumably came down Prefumo Creek as it winds through the Laguna Lake Golf Course (or perhaps lakefront residents are practicing their swing).

Davidson and Smigelski said they’re not too disappointed about the lake’s current state, but mostly because they’re hopeful the city will move forward with long-discussed but never carried-out plans to dredge the lake.

“I would describe ourselves as cautiously optimistic, but we would like to see some concrete progress,” Davidson said.

Almost ‘shovel-ready’

Some Friends of Laguna Lake members have lobbied the city to act now, as the drought continues, to accelerate a plan to excavate the lake. Bob Hill, the city’s natural resources manager, said the goal remains to have a “shovel-ready” dredging project in two years.

The exact project, however, is still to be determined. Hill plans to ask the City Council on Aug. 18 to consider authorizing a request for proposal for a firm to explore several projects of various sizes, including an excavation project for dry conditions.

But some are clearly frustrated with the progress.

“I also share my opinion that there isn’t a great deal of desire by the city, including yourselves, to actually restore the lake to any degree,” resident Brett Cross wrote in a letter to the City Council, which he also posted on Friends of Laguna Lake’s Facebook page on July 10.

“And I say that because there was so little effort to explore permitting and a project to remove the 50-plus years of accumulated silt from the lake during a dry period.”

Costly challenge

For years, city leaders have talked about the best way to care for the lake, a naturally occurring body of water that has been altered over the years, according to the Laguna Lake Natural Reserve Conservation Plan adopted by the council in July 2014.

In the 1960s, Prefumo Creek was rerouted into the lake and the southeastern portion of the lake area was excavated and developed — creating what the city has called a “long-term management challenge.”

It also created recreational opportunities for boating, windsurfing and swimming, among other activities. Under normal conditions, the open water portion of the reserve is about 95 acres, surrounded by 75 acres of wetland marsh areas.

But as silt washes down from nearby hills, the lake continues to grow more and more shallow, making it impossible to use for many of the activities for which people once cherished it. Previously, the lake went mostly dry in 1977 and 1991.

Plans to dredge the lake have been tossed around City Hall for years, but the costly price tag has prevented it from happening.

In 2009, the council adopted an environmental document for dredging the lake but did not adopt the dredging plan, then proposed to remove about 150,000 cubic yards over the course of 10 years.

In 2010, the council voted to move for ward with a project and directed staff to return in the city’s next budget cycle to discuss how to pay for it.

But in 2011, the city faced $4 million in budget cuts. Instead of dredging, the council directed staff to create a plan for maintenance of Laguna Lake.

The conservation plan, adopted last year, calls for dredging portions of the lake but also focuses on restoring eroded creek banks above the lake, continuing to remove sediment from the Prefumo Arm, and adding more sediment basins.

The plan also calls for increased access, including an accessible loop trail, a boardwalk and viewing platforms.

Residents share costs?

The lake narrowly missed becoming a major City Council goal in the recent goal-setting process for the 2015-17 financial plan. It made the list of “important objectives.”

Still, $250,000 was allocated in the 2015-16 budget to the accessible loop trail.

An additional $450,000 was put toward dredging and sediment management. That money can go toward updated studies, project designs and engineering, permits and a finance plan.

A contract toward that work could be awarded as soon as October, Hill said. The consultant would likely come back after six to eight months with various options for the council to select and give additional direction. Nearby property owners will likely be asked to help share the cost. The city has discussed creating a community facilities district, which would annually assess individual properties. Two-thirds of affected property owners would have to vote to create the district.

It’s possible that the project costs could be spread across the Laguna Lake community or the entire city, depending on the level of support, though those with lakefront homes would still likely pay more.

Hill said the updated study would include an evaluation of a dry excavation project, an option that some residents have advocated for as the drought continues.

“They should have had something ready to go,” said Cross, who was only a few months old when his parents moved to a home on Oceanaire in the early 1960s. He continues to live at the lakefront. “Pump the lake down if you need to. The thing is pretty much sterile now.”

Waiting for a plan

By the end of the dredging, Atascadero spent nearly half a million dollars to make the lake deeper and cleaner. The city scraped over 22 acres atop the lakebed, making it deeper by an average of 1.5 feet. By comparison, San Luis Obispo’s project could remove 150,000 cubic yards and cost an estimated $5 million over 10 years. Hill said a dredging project would remove more sediment than a dry excavation, allowing the city to get the result it wants.

In addition, some of the lakebed at Laguna Lake is clay soil, which is moist and muddy under the dry surface, meaning the city might not be able to dig as deep as it could in a wet dredging project.

“I hear from a number of folks asking why can’t the city do something now and wouldn’t it be less expensive,” Hill said. “It might be. I don’t know for sure.

“What concerns me more is, will we be able to get the result we want with a dry excavation project?”

The results of a future study will help to answer that question. In the meantime, residents at the lakefront can only wait.

Kincaid, the former parks and recreation commissioner, believes the city is moving as quickly as it can, especially when officials are dealing with many other issues and projects.

Others are not as optimistic.

“My hopes are not high,” Cross said. “Who knows how long the permitting process takes. I’m certainly not going to hold my breath.”