Water & Drought

Lake Nacimiento is just 27 percent full — so residents are threatening a lawsuit

How Lake Nacimiento water reaches the Salinas Valley to irrigate “America’s Salad Bowl”

Water from Lake Nacimiento is released into the Salinas River, which flows to the Salinas Valley, where it irrigates crops in "America's Salad Bowl." Monterey County, CA, owns the rights to most of Nacimiento's water for this purpose.
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Water from Lake Nacimiento is released into the Salinas River, which flows to the Salinas Valley, where it irrigates crops in "America's Salad Bowl." Monterey County, CA, owns the rights to most of Nacimiento's water for this purpose.

A group of Lake Nacimiento residents are raising money to take legal action against Monterey County — which they claim is draining the reservoir and hurting lakeside recreation.

The Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee (NRWMAC) recently created a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $100,000 to cover ongoing legal costs. In about two weeks, the group has received $41,426 from more than 200 people.

Lake Nacimiento, located in northwestern San Luis Obispo County, was built in the 1950s by Monterey County to supply water to Salinas Valley farmers.

Monterey County residents paid $7 million to construct the 163-mile reservoir, which has been a source of conflict almost since its completion.

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Under an agreement the two counties drew up in 1959, San Luis Obispo County is allotted 17,500 acre-feet of water per year, while Monterey County gets 180,000 acre-feet of water per year.

But most San Luis Obispo County residents didn’t see any lake water until nearly 50 years later, when the Nacimiento Water Project was constructed to pipe water into their communities.

Water fight continues

Today, environmentalists, farmers and recreational enthusiasts all vie for more Nacimiento water, although most of it ends up going to the Salinas Valley.

During the past three months, Lake Nacimiento has lost a sizeable chunk of its water. The reservoir — which has a total capacity of 377,900 acre-feet — was 51 percent full in mid-April and is now at 27 percent of capacity, according to the Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA).

That doesn’t sit well with lakeside residents, who will soon lose the ability to use their private docks. The lake must maintain an elevation of 730 feet for residents to be able to launch boats from their docks — it’s currently 733 feet.

Debi DeShon and her mussel-sniffing dog Popeye inspect boats at Lake Nacimiento in northern San Luis Obispo County, California, for invasive aquatic species like quagga and zebra mussels.

The Lake Nacimiento Resort Marina will likely remain usable, as the water usually remains deeper in that area of the lake.

Bill Capps, a NRWMAC board member, has a home in the Laguna Vista Boat Club on the north side of the lake. He said his organization is planning a lawsuit because Monterey County is ignoring the needs of recreational users and lakeside residents.

“They’re going to take water out of the lake,” Capps said. “We understand you have the right to do this, but we think you’re abusing that right by taking the amount of water you’re taking.”

The reservoir’s release schedule is approved by the Reservoir Operations Advisory Committee toward the beginning of the year and is modified over time, so residents around the lake were likely aware of the planned water loss ahead of time.

NRWMAC has a seat on the committee, but is greatly outnumbered by Salinas Valley growers who pay to maintain a water infrastructure system dependent on reservoir releases.

Monterey County is also required to release a certain amount of water to support a threatened species of steelhead trout in the Salinas River.

Dipping lake levels

The lake is expected to reach 11 percent of total capacity by the end of the year, according to the most recent release schedule.

According to the “Save the Dragon” GoFundMe page, “this massive release of water will devastate the local economy in San Luis Obispo County, where the lake is actually located, by curtailing recreation, depressing property values and reducing business and tax revenues.”

German Criollo, an associate hydrologist for Monterey County, said his agency is aware of NRWMAC’s potential lawsuit.

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But he said the county has released similar amounts of water in the past. He said allowing for lakeside recreation is one goal for the reservoir, but “really recreation isn’t the highest priority for this board of directors.”

“It’s not an unmeasured amount,” Criollo said of the water releases. “It’s something we’re controlling as much as possible. In our view, we’re doing the best we can to manage releases.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden