Photos from the Vault

Beer drinking and gunfire once left Reservoir Canyon at risk of closure

Ron Lessley, left, Steve Kurtz and Paul Peterson were some of the Cal Poly Penguins motorcycle club members who spent a Saturday afternoon in March 1980 removing trash from Reservoir Canyon in San Luis Obispo.
Ron Lessley, left, Steve Kurtz and Paul Peterson were some of the Cal Poly Penguins motorcycle club members who spent a Saturday afternoon in March 1980 removing trash from Reservoir Canyon in San Luis Obispo. Telegram-Tribune

Water and gunpowder are typically not found together. The phrase “Keep your powder dry” comes to mind.

But for a time in the 1980s, irresponsible gunfire left scenic Reservoir Canyon at risk of closure to the public. Even though there were warning signs posted prohibiting shooting, old habits were hard to break.

Today, the only sound of shooting in the area is from the San Luis Obispo Police Department’s nearby training range.

Reservoir Canyon, now a popular hiking area located just minutes northbound of San Luis Obispo off Highway 101, is a mixture of private grazing land and public property that the city used for its earliest municipal water supply.

In 1874, San Luis Obispo’s first fire hydrants were hooked up to a system sourcing water from the canyon.

A century later in the 1980s, however, the area had become a popular spot for delinquent behavior.

People drank beer and set bonfires, and disrespectful shooters put holes in water troughs, gates, pipes and even sheep, causing periodic controversy. A folder in the Tribune archive is filled with news stories, editorials and letters to the editor.

The behavior made canyon residents nervous, and one even found a bullet hole in her garage door.

In the mid-1980s, a 30-year-old man named Mariano “Apache” Rey was killed while camping in the canyon with permission of the landowner.

The Jan. 26, 1985, article about the death said four young men who had been shooting nearby were arrested in the case.

Things had to change, and over the years, the city drove out the vandals and established Reservoir Canyon as the natural resource it is today. The area is now off limits to target shooters, and hikers enjoy the network of outstanding trails.

This March 26, 1980, story by Glenn Scott shows how much the area has improved:

Waterfall may be off limits

Precisely 1.2 miles by road east of San Luis Obispo’s city limits, a 35-foot waterfall is cascading this spring on city-owned land which soon is expected to be posted off-limits to the public.

In the dirt parking lot at Reservoir Canyon, only a few hundred feet from the falls, a black and white pistol target is taped to a cardboard box, evidence of illegal shooting.

A few .22-caliber rifle shells and shotgun shells are scattered on the ground, and broken glass is sprinkled near the target. Bottles must have served as targets at times.

1980 04-07 Reservoir Canyon03870
In 1980, signs were posted prohibiting shooting in Reservoir Canyon. Tony Hertz Telegram-Tribune

It is an unlikely marriage, this watery canyon and gunpowdery mess, but it helps explain why the City Council is arranging to close the once-natural setting to impromptu visitors.

Last week, the City Council told City Attorney George C. Thacher to negotiate a three-year, $25-a-year lease with Eleanor Truocchio, an adjacent landowner, to take over the property.

Truocchio said her family wants control of the property only so the road leading to the parking lot can be blocked and visitors kept out.

She told the council that illegal shooting, dirt-bike riding and littering has increased.

City Administrator Leland M. Walton agreed with her and said by yielding the land temporarily to the neighbors, the city can control it in a way it couldn’t do on its own without spending money.

Walton said the canyon increasingly has become a hangout for people more interested in drinking beer and making bonfires than enjoying nature.

“There used to be some picnic tables up there until a couple of years ago but then they chopped them up and used them for firewood,” he said. “It was getting out of hand.”

“(Closing) it is a terrible thing and I don’t like it either,” he went on, “but we’re looking at the alternative of losing it all together.”

Last year, he said, there were “two close calls” where fires almost got out of control and burned the whole region.

Walton said he already has talked to officers from local chapters of the Audubon and California Native Plant societies. He said the lease should have a clause allowing groups and possibly individual hikers to use the property by getting permits from City Hall.

The permits mean extra trouble for the people who value the natural resource, he said, but he thinks such users will accept the restriction to preserve the environment.

The council would have to vote final approval of the lease once it is agreed to by Thacher and Truocchio. Walton said he wants a clause allowing either party to break the lease after a 90-day period should the city, for instance, be able to set up a management plan for the property.

The city owns 200 acres in the canyon in five, 40-acre parcels. Much of the land follows the creek back into the canyon, but it also includes parts that Public Services Director David F. Romero calls “billy goat land,” where the acreage stretches up the west side of the brushy ridge.

The city bought the land before the turn of the century for water rights, and until some 15 years ago, a small reservoir trapped water for use by residents. Romero said the city quit maintaining the lake because of more stringent health requirements and because vandals kept shooting holes in the pipes.

Since then, the canyon has been a hidden piece of public property used without much attention except routine maintenance from the city.

Truocchio said another reason she wants to seal off the city property is because hikers who go upstream from the falls and the lot are trespassing part of the time on her family’s 4,500 acres of grazing land.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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