How Lake Nacimiento water reaches the Salinas Valley to irrigate “America’s Salad Bowl”
More than 60 years ago, San Luis Obispo County officials gave away the region’s biggest source of water.
Lake Nacimiento — a 163-mile dragon-shaped reservoir in the northwest corner of the county — could hold three times the combined water contained in the Lopez, Whale Rock and Salinas reservoirs.
And county officials let Monterey County build it in 1954 with very few strings attached.
The result has been a decades-long struggle between San Luis Obispo County residents and the Salinas Valley landowners who paid $7 million to construct Nacimiento and millions more to maintain it.
“It’s water in California is what it comes down to,” said Brent Buche, deputy general manager for the operations and maintenance division of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
1954: A deal is struck
It’s tough to picture now, but Lake Nacimiento was just a twinkle in the eyes of Salinas Valley farmers back in the mid-1950s.
According to John Baillie, whose family has grown vegetables in Monterey County for generations, farmers needed a way to recharge their groundwater aquifers and prevent the Salinas River from flooding their fields.
There were a number of different sites the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District considered for a reservoir, but they eventually decided a dam across the Nacimiento River in San Luis Obispo County would yield the most water, Baillie said.
“Back then, it was cattle land,” he said.
A Telegram-Tribune article from Jan. 8, 1954, describes a meeting between San Luis Obispo County and Monterey County supervisors at the Paso Robles Inn.
“I have no objection, provided there will be water for our area,” said Supervisor A.A. Peters of Paso Robles.
The board gave the dam project its formal approval on Feb. 2, asking for 20,000 acre-feet of water per year and “in lieu taxes on any fringe land around the reservoir that may be acquired in the course of installing the project.”
1957: Lake Nacimiento is completed
Construction on the dam and reservoir finished by 1957, according to Telegram-Tribune articles.
The same year, the newspaper reported Santa Margarita Lake opened for recreation and plans to build Whale Rock Reservoir near Cayucos were approved after a heated debate.
1959: SLO and Monterey counties clash over water rights
Only a few years after San Luis Obispo County supervisors allowed Monterey County officials to build a dam and reservoir on the Nacimiento River, the two counties fought for control of the San Antonio River.
The battle ensued only after San Luis Obispo County officials realized they’d given up valuable rights in 1954.
In January 1959, attorney John Goux represented San Luis Obispo County during a State Water Resources Control Board hearing, according to a Telegram-Tribune article.
During the hearing, Goux set out to “prove that Monterey County was able to obtain the Nacimiento permit ... without any opposition from San Luis Obispo County by ‘lulling San Luis Obispo County into a false sense of security by means of verbal agreements which they did not fulfill.’”
Goux told the board that Monterey County officials had led San Luis Obispo County officials to believe they would get the 20,000 acre-feet of water they’d been promised, but the resource was never allocated.
The dispute was finally concluded in March, when the two counties reached an agreement during a closed-door meeting. Known today as “The 1959 Agreement,” the settlement officials drew up has governed the reservoir’s water for 64 years.
The agreement included stipulations that gave San Luis Obispo County an allocation of 17,500 acre-feet of water per year from either the Nacimiento or San Antonio reservoirs.
Monterey County also agreed to construct a dam on the San Antonio River by 1966, or officials would relinquish their right to the project.
A Telegram-Tribune article from March 9, 1959, said San Luis Obispo County officials were “better off in accepting the agreement than depending on the outcome of a state board decision and possibly having to take the matter to the courts.”
1960s and 1970s: SLO County voters reject Nacimiento bond measures
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, San Luis Obispo County residents voted down multiple bond measures that would’ve financed a distribution system for Nacimiento water.
A Telegram-Tribune article from Nov. 6, 1974, describes a $31.4 million bond project that would’ve paid for a system to distribute 15,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water to Paso Robles, Atascadero, Morro Bay, Templeton and the South Bay area of Los Osos.
In the end, voters rejected the project by just 1.2 percent.
2007: Nacimiento Water Project construction begins
Nearly 50 years after receiving the rights to Nacimiento water, San Luis Obispo County finally started work on a $176.1 million project to transport it to Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo and southern Cayucos.
The projects began operations in 2011, and Paso Robles residents began receiving water from the project in 2015 — nearly 60 years after the reservoir was completed.
San Luis Obispo County pays for its water per acre foot — the price is based on Lake San Antonio maintenance costs, according to Mark Hutchinson, deputy Public Works director.
When the reservoir dips to an elevation of 687.8 feet or lower, the remaining water is reserved for San Luis Obispo County, Hutchinson said.
“We’re really in the first water in, last water out position with the reservoir,” he said.