Millions of people are betting on Arizona. They’re buying homes, starting businesses, and families. The future of how we use our water resources may dictate the future of their success. “We don’t want to put consumers and businesses at risk when they built and there was a hundred years of water but what happens 80 years from now, is there still 100 years of water left,” said Haley Paul, a regional director for the Audubon Society. That question was addressed four decades earlier with the Groundwater Management act of 1980. The idea was the law would ensure when water was taken out, just as much was put back in, creating what they called a safe yield goal by 2025.
For decades, it was a source of drinking water for the San Marcos area. Today, the South Lake Reservoir has new life as a local wildlife habitat.
South Lake was built with an earthen dam and provided drinking water to the Lake San Marcos area, most of downtown San Marcos, and the Coronado Hills area. Updates to potable water treatment had detrimental effects on the lake ecology, so the Vallecitos Water District stopped using the lake as a drinking water source in 1984, although it remained an emergency water supply for another decade.
Now, South Lake provides a thriving ecosystem within and around the facility. The lake is home to freshwater fish and abundant aquatic plant life. Waterfowl such as coots, gallinules, grebes, various species of ducks, and cormorants frequent the lake throughout the year. The property is filled with quail, doves, deer, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, bobcats, and coyotes.
Volunteers help identify habitat and wildlife at South Lake
Vallecitos Water District staff recently surveyed the area to look for animal tracks and other signs of wildlife, and to catalog plant and animal species.
Certified California naturalists Paige DeCino and Karen Merrill from Preserve Calavera assisted Vallecitos public information representative Alicia Yerman, who is also a certified naturalist. The team spent three days exploring the lake and the 1.4-mile trail. Merrill and DeCino host the volunteer UC Naturalist certification program. The program is currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Two wildlife cameras were set up at South Lake to capture wildlife activity over a two-week period. Lisa Urabe, a University of California trained Master Gardener and Vallecitos public information representative, asked the Buena Vista Audubon Society to conduct a bird survey. The BVAS volunteers identified 36 species in mid-February and created a YouTube video showcasing some of the species.
BVAS volunteers were enthusiastic about surveying the birds in an area set aside as wildlife habitat. With increased habitat fragmentation, BVAS hopes the area will remain primarily an area for wildlife.
“What you have at South Lake is a gem of the healthy functioning habitat— flora, fauna, and it is just a complete picture of what we hope our open spaces and natural lands to be,” said Karen Merrill. “It is something we should treasure now and into the future. It is one of a kind here on coastal San Diego County.”
Vallecitos employees take pride in the lake and its surrounding ecosystem and strive to keep the habitat intact for generations to come.
Firefighting helicopters can pull water from the lake
In addition to its value as local wildlife habitat, South Lake is available for fire suppression. Firefighting helicopters can pull water from the lake during wildfire events. The lake may be used as part of the City of San Marcos’ park system in the future.
Water quality within South Lake is monitored daily by water distribution operators, and the condition of the dam’s integrity is recorded weekly. Recently, an environmentally-sound ultrasonic technology made by LG Sonic was placed on the lake to reduce algae blooms and to improve water quality.
The Salton Sea in California’s far southeast corner has challenged policymakers and local agencies alike to save the desert lake – a vital stop for migrating birds – from becoming a fetid, hyper-saline water body inhospitable to wildlife and a source of choking dust. The state of California, long derided for its failure to act in the past, says it is now moving full-bore to address the sea’s problems, with ambitious plans for wildlife habitat and dust suppression. Skeptics say addressing the sea’s issues is vital not only for the sea and surrounding communities, but for management of the Colorado River as well.
The State of California, after resolving key hurdles, is set to move forward on a restoration project at the Salton Sea to improve habitat for migratory birds, while covering more exposed sea bed.
When the State Water Resources Control Board last met to discuss the status of the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP), Chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel called upon the State to resolve issues causing delays in the State’s lead project at the sea—Species Conservation Habitat.
Resolution was reached on several of the issues in May, and now the state can move forward with a design-build plan for constructing the habitat project. Development of the project is a tangible sign of the Salton Sea Management Plan being implemented.
Wetlands project completed
Smaller-scale restoration projects at the Salton Sea are moving forward. California agencies, the Salton Sea Authority, and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Tribe completed a 60-acre wetlands project on the northern end of the sea. Additionally, work is advancing on the 500-plus acre Red Hill Marina wetlands project on the southeast side of the sea. Earthwork is complete, pipelines are in place, and pumps have been ordered and are on their way.
But, the Species Conservation Habitat project is the shining piece of phase one of California’s 10-year approach to the Salton Sea Management Program. It is a proof of concept project that would lay the groundwork for projects to come. The habitat project spans nearly 4,000 acres and entails building a series of ponds that would provide a controlled habitat to manage a fish population, which, in return, would provide a food source for migratory birds. Most importantly, it is a habitat project that would cover an expansive area of exposed playa.
Land issues resolved
What makes the Species Conservation Habitat project so critical is that it has already gone through the permitting phase for the entire 4,000 acres and is ready to move forward with construction. Those who follow the Salton Sea issues anticipated SCH would already be moving forward by now in a phased approach that would have seen about 640 acres completed first. However, an easement issue, lack of staff dedicated to the SSMP, and a learning curve associated with a design-build project delivery process – led to delays in the project.
With land issues resolved, the fact that California is increasing its staff dedicated to the Salton Sea and the Salton Sea Management Plan, and state agencies becoming more familiar with the design-build project delivery method, several obstacles impeding progress have been removed. The 4,000-acre project is expected to start this year be completed in 2023.
The State Water Resources Control Board will likely be holding a new workshop on the Salton Sea in the near future. By then, the State is to have a recovery plan as a path forward to prevent future delays in project development.