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In the 1960s, unregulated Lake Nacimiento was ‘the worst slum in SLO County’

Nacimiento Lake "campsites" in November 1969 featured outdoor toilets and travel trailers under makeshift sheds.
Nacimiento Lake "campsites" in November 1969 featured outdoor toilets and travel trailers under makeshift sheds. Telegram-Tribune file

Lake Nacimiento is unlike any other reservoir in the county.

For one thing, it is big.

How big?

Nacimiento could hold the combined waters of Lopez, Whale Rock and Salinas reservoirs 3 times over. And it would still have room left to dump in one more Whale Rock and Salinas.

It is California’s 20th-largest lake in surface area according to the Lakelubbers website and is listed in Wikipedia as the 21st-largest in storage capacity

Lakelubbers has the 163-mile dragon-shaped shoreline listed as 5th-longest in the state, when the lake is full.

It’s equivalent in length to the combined shorelines of Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea.

Nacimiento and neighboring San Antonio Lake flow into the Salinas River. In combination, they account for more than 75 percent of the flow into Monterey Bay according to an October 2008 report cited by the Nacitone Watersheds Steering Committee and Central Coast Salmon Enhancement Inc.

The large Nacimiento watershed in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties is located in the best rain corridor.

The wettest weather station in the county, Rocky Butte averages about 40 inches of rain a year, a ridge line away from the Nacimiento watershed.

Historian Mark Hall Patton wrote in his book “Memories of the Land” that “nacimiento” refers a river’s source or the Nativity of Christ.

1969 11-28 Nacimento Lake 98075
Nacimiento Lake "campsites" in November 1969 featured outdoor toilets and travel trailers under makeshift sheds. Michael Raphael Telegram-Tribune file

Nacimiento is also the only county lake with large permanent shoreline communities.

The lake was built by Monterey County in the late 1950s to deliver water to the Salinas River for farmers. The watershed straddles both San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. The lake and dam are in San Luis Obispo County, but managed by Monterey.

In the 1960s as the lake filled, the siren call of recreation drew thousands to the new lake, but there were few facilities. The scene was chaotic.

A crisis was at hand by March 3, 1966, when the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission revoked temporary campsite permits.

The Telegram-Tribune wrote that there were 14 property organizations and half of them had endorsed the move.

Attorney William Houser, representing Nacimiento Co., said there were only a few hundred authorized camping sites.

“There are 30,000 people using the lake on some weekends. That means about 20,000 of them are not complying with any kind of regulations,” said Houser.

Illegal campers were boating to remote sites and pitching tents. When asked to leave, they just floated over to the next spot.

“They’re using our ‘No Trespass’ signs for firewood,” Houser said.

Christmas Cove was the only site where permits were not revoked because they applied for permanent facilities including water and sewage disposal systems.

State law had been vague about water quality, but with new law the county felt more confident enforcing tighter sanitation requirements.

1970 11-24 Nacimento Lake 98078
Dick Kelsey, manager of Lake Nacimiento Park, points to the high-water level on the hillside 80 feet above the marina where he is standing. George DeBord Telegram-Tribune file

Soon five-year permits were expiring as well.

A Nov. 28, 1969, story by Warren Groshong described a makeshift community of house trailers and sheds along the north shore near Bee Rock.

“The area because it has no water or sewage facilities, is now considered ‘the worst slum in San Luis Obispo County,’ according to planning director Ned Rogoway.

Campsite users must handle their garbage the best way they can. They have constructed temporary toilet facilities on the lake’s shores and many have lines running their waste water down the bank into the lake, which one day is expected to become one of the county’s main sources of drinking water.”

The crackdown transformed the area.

The lake communities have come a long way from the chaotic late ’60s, some have a casual weekend retreat ambiance while others are gated suburban enclaves with full-time residents. Heritage Ranch and nearby communities have enough residents to support an elementary school.

By November 1970, George DeBord wrote that lake users were looking for a better year-round experience.

1970 11-24 Nacimento Lake 98077
The Nacimiento Lake spillway required extensive repair after record rainfall of the 1968-69 rain season. Georbge DeBoard Telegram-Tribune file

The lake’s resort businesses and a growing number of residents were upset when the lake level was drained.

After the record rainfall and flows of 1969, the spillway of Nacimiento Dam needed repair. The lake was drawn down to 6,000 acre-feet, and the lake looked more like a slow-moving river surrounded by mud flats.

Dick Kelsey, manager of Lake Nacimiento Park, suggested that the minimum pool for the lake be set at 100,000 acre-feet.

Kelsey said: “Were not saying, ‘Don’t take the water out of here.’ Not at all, because we know they have to do that.

“But we think they could make the lake more useful and enjoyable by making it so there was more water here for the people.”

Today, Monterey County is proposing running a pipeline between Nacimiento and San Antonio lakes to pump water from the richer Nacimiento watershed to store in San Antonio.

At Lake Nacimiento , the ramshackle trailer towns are gone, but fans of the lake still wish water releases were smaller.

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

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