Water & Drought

Nacimiento residents sue Monterey County for $120 million over declining water levels

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 is suing Monterey County for $120 million, claiming officials ignored the needs of recreational users by releasing more water from the reservoir than necessary.

The Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee (NRWMAC) — which represents approximately 6,500 residents living around the reservoir — on Tuesday filed a civil lawsuit against the Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA).

The lawsuit, filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court in Paso Robles, alleges the county agency has mismanaged the reservoir and “operated the lake in a manner that renders it almost unusable by property owners and visitors for recreation.”

NRWMAC contends Monterey County officials have released more water from Nacimiento than the state authorizes and have “purposefully misrepresented the water level required for recreation so as to draw more water than necessary.”

Lake Nacimiento is at less than half capacity as water storage in reservoirs around San Luis Obispo County drops amid a persistent dry winter 2018.

Civil lawsuits represent only the plaintiff’s perspective and don’t include the defendant’s point of view.

Brent Buche, deputy general manager for MCWRA, declined to comment on Wednesday, as the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

Lakeside residents battle for water

Although Lake Nacimiento is located in San Luis Obispo County, it’s managed by Monterey County. Agricultural landowners to the north also own most of the rights to the water it contains.

The 377,900 acre-foot reservoir was built in the late 1950s, and its $7 million price tag was primarily financed by Salinas Valley growers.

Agreements made around the time Nacimiento was built left San Luis Obispo County with rights to 17,500 acre-feet of water per year, while Monterey County gets 180,000 acre-feet annually.

Lakeside property owners have long lamented how much water is released from the reservoir. Monterey County water officials must contend with recreational users, growers and federal wildlife authorities, all of whom require Nacimiento water.

When Nacimiento dips below about 25 percent of capacity — or 730 feet in elevation — some boat ramps become unusable, although the Lake Nacimiento Resort marina can still launch watercraft in its area of the reservoir.

In its lawsuit, NRWMAC claims the minimum water level for recreation should be 748 feet between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the peak activity period.

Last year, lakeside residents were particularly unhappy to see the reservoir drained from 55 percent of capacity in April down to 13 percent in October.

They set up a GoFundMe page to begin raising money for a lawsuit in July, when the reservoir was at 27 percent of capacity.

Following a recent series of winter storms, Nacimiento is currently 20 percent full, according to MCWRA data.

Don Bullard, NRWMAC president, directed The Tribune to attorneys Wayne Lemieux and Edward Kang of Olivarez, Madruga, Lemieux and O’Neill in Los Angeles. Neither attorney responded to a request for comment.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, immigration and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She also covers northern San Luis Obispo County city governments and school districts. Lindsey joined The Tribune in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. She’s a native Californian raised in the Midwest and is a proud graduate of two Chicago schools: DePaul University and Northwestern University.


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