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East vs West Wastewater Wars Move Closer to Resolution

Sewage is now a commodity, a drinking water resource in the world of California drought, and the city of San Diego and a bloc of eastern San Diego County water agencies have been fighting over it.

Both parties will be recycling wastewater into drinking water but they need to cut a deal with each other to make that happen and it’s gotten fairly complicated, as Voice of San Diego’s MacKenzie Elmer previously reported.

East County Nears Vote on New Wastewater Plant Amid Historic Drought

East County is moving closer to building a new wastewater treatment plant to recycle millions of gallons a day, amid a severe lack of rainfall that’s pushed the region into its driest period in a millennium.

Officials with the local Helix Water District have announced they and other project leaders are more than halfway done designing a system to make the region less reliant on outside water. The governing body overseeing the project is scheduled to vote May 19 on a final price with contractors, a spokeswoman said.

Helix Water District Adds New Assistant General Manager Position

Helix Water District has added a new tier of management to help oversee its more than 277,000 East County customers.

The district’s five-person board last week approved the creation of an assistant general manager position, bringing the number of employees to 151 in the district, which has an $80 million budget.

District spokesperson Mike Uhrhammer said Helix created the new position as part of its succession plan following the anticipated retirement of current general manager Carlos Lugo.

Helix Water District Moving Forward With Water Shutoffs

Helix Water District, which provides water for much of East County, will reinstate late fees starting in August and renew water shutoffs on Oct. 1.

The utility’s governing board voted 4-1 on Wednesday to support staff’s decision to bring back late fees and shutoffs for nonpayment. Customers suffering financial hardship had been given a grace period during the pandemic.

The district currently has 546 accounts in arrears for a total of more than $470,000. Helix officials say that 475 of those accounts are residential.

Santee Lakes Celebrates 60th Anniversary

Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve has been celebrating its 60th anniversary during the month of June. The 190‐acre park surrounding seven lakes has been around since it received San Diego County Health Department approval in 1961. The site has five miles of walking and biking trails, a campground with 300 full hook-up sites, seven lakefront cabins and three floating rental cabins on Lake 7. The lake allows for fishing with a permit and there are more than 200 species of birds that have been documented at the park. The preserve also has seven playgrounds, a brand new administrative building and a revamped general store that rents out pedal boats.

Otay Water District Offering Art Contest for Kids

The Otay Water District is looking for young artists to enter its annual “Water is Life” poster contest for students who live in the district’s service area. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade can win prizes for depicting the importance of water through original illustrations on posters. The district will select six winners based on the theme, originality, and visual and word clarity. Otay will also enter those works of art into a second contest held for water agencies throughout Southern California run by the Metropolitan Water District.

Helix, Padre Dam Municipal Water Districts Use Lawsuit Win to Help Customers

Two East County water agencies plan to reduce future water rates by using millions of dollars they received from the San Diego County Water Authority as part of a legal settlement. The Water Authority announced a plan Feb. 25 to distribute $44.4 million to its 24-member agencies — including the Helix Water District and Padre Dam Municipal Water District — after receiving a check for that amount from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

A happy Lake Jennings angler shows off his rainbow trout prize during the fall season opening weekend. Photo: Lake Jennings trout season

Lake Jennings Trout Season Opening A Success

Lake Jennings, the Helix Water District reservoir in Lakeside, is one of San Diego County’s hot spots for trout fishing. It ranks second in the county according to the recreational fishing website SDFish.com. The 2020 fall trout fishing season got underway on November 20, with enthusiastic anglers enjoying safe outdoor recreation with pandemic precautions in place.

“It’s one of those family activities people can do right now,” said Kira Haley, Helix Water District recreation manager. “Kids need to get outside and spend time in the fresh air. It was a big weekend; it was really fun.”

Through the opening weekend, Lake Jennings issued 931 permits, including 161 for children, an increase of 10% over 2019.

Showing off a string of rainbow trout along with the beautiful Lake Jennings scenery. Photo: Lake Jennings trout season

Showing off a string of rainbow trout along with the beautiful Lake Jennings scenery. Photo: Lake Jennings

Haley said due to safety measures, the lake staff worked hard to keep lines to a minimum.

“We are only allowing one family into the bait and tackle shop at a time,” said Haley. “One of the first things we did was get a portable register. It allows us to go up and down the line of people selling permits to those who don’t need to come into the store itself.”

Trout arrived last week from Thatcher, Idaho. The 2,500 pounds of fish travel 913 miles in an oxygenated truck to stock the lake.

“The lake is so clear you can see the fish,” she said. “A lot of our fishermen are sight fishing. They can follow a school around the lake and cast before they get there. It becomes more of an exercise activity too.”

Fishing and social distancing go together

Catfish were also biting. This impressive 38-pound catfish was safely released back into the lake. Photo: Lake Jennings

Catfish were also biting. This impressive 38-pound catfish was safely released back into the lake. Photo: Lake Jennings

Fishing is a natural social distancing activity.

“We have five miles of shoreline there’s plenty of space to spread out,” said Haley. “When you’re working with hooks and big fishing poles, you want to stay away from other people.”

Haley praised visitors for their compliance with all safety precautions, which have been in place since July.

“People are being respectful,” she said. “They’re wearing their masks, which makes us so happy. This is allowing us to stay in business and stay in compliance.”

She said all boats, lifejackets and seat cushions are disinfected after every use. Haley said only EPA approved disinfectants are used around the lake.

The lake’s 97 campground spaces are currently booked three weeks in advance for weekend dates.

Nothing tastes quite as good as freshly caught fish prepared on the grill at Lake Jennings. Photo: Lake Jennings

Nothing tastes quite as good as freshly caught fish prepared on the grill at Lake Jennings. Photo: Lake Jennings

The lake remains open for activities, including nature walks and birding from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Night fishing ended November 20 due to California’s 10 p.m. curfew order.  Haley said night fishing might return on a limited basis until 9 p.m. on future weekends. Check the lake’s website for the latest information.

Lake Jennings is more than just a great fishing spot. The lake is also where the Helix Water District stores imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California and local water from Lake Cuyamaca and El Capitan Reservoir to provide safe, reliable water to East County residents.

East County Special Districts Looking to Fill Seats on Governing Boards

San Diego County has a variety of special districts, those independent public agencies with governing bodies that deliver core services to communities. The East County contingent of agencies include several water, health care and fire districts.

Helix Water District’s Calavo storage tank was ideally positioned to play home to the new repeater. Photo: Helix WD emergency communication

New Helix Water District Connection Improves Emergency Communication

East San Diego County firefighters and first responders will be better prepared to respond to emergencies due to improved communication capacity through a new partnership with the Helix Water District. The Heartland Communication Facility Authority recently installed a new radio repeater on Helix Water’s Calavo tank, located near Mt. Helix.

“When public agencies work together to improve the lives of our citizens, everyone benefits,” said Helix Board President Mark Gracyk. “We are delighted with the outcome and are very proud to participate in making East County a safer place to live.”

Heartland’s goal is to provide its customers with the highest quality of public safety communications services. Heartland provides public safety communication services to 13 fire agencies throughout East San Diego County. It uses a universal radio system – known as a VHF radio – to communicate with fire agencies and first responders.

New radio repeater improves public safety

Though reliable, the hilly terrain of East County can interfere with VHF radio communications. Diagram: Helix WD emergency communication

Though reliable, the hilly terrain of East County can interfere with VHF radio communications. Diagram: Helix Water District

Though reliable, the hilly terrain of East County can interfere with VHF radio communications. As part of its effort to improve communication in El Cajon and Spring Valley, it needed a suitable location to install a radio repeater between the two communities. The Calavo storage tank was ideally positioned to play home to the new repeater. Heartland approached Helix to work out an agreement.

“Heartland Communications Facility Authority knows the needs of our local emergency communication infrastructure,” said Dan McMillian, Helix Water District board member. “When Heartland approached Helix, our board saw this as an opportunity for our two agencies to work together for the benefit of the communities that we serve.”

“The addition of a radio repeater on the Calavo Drive water tank will allow firefighters from throughout the state who respond to the East County to communicate with each other and the dispatch center using this repeater,” said Carlos Castillo, Director of Heartland Communications. “Communications are an integral part of the firefighting effort in suppressing wildland fires, and firefighter safety relies on an effective communication infrastructure.”

Project completed prior to anticipated 2020 wildfire season

Improvements at the Calavo site included installing a new radio repeater and a four-foot antenna at the top of the tank. Photo: Helix WD

Improvements at the Calavo site included installing a new radio repeater and a four-foot antenna at the top of the tank. Photo: Helix Water District

Construction started in March 2020 and was completed in June 2020. Improvements at the Calavo site included installing a new radio repeater and a four-foot antenna at the top of the tank. As part of the project, San Diego Gas and Electric installed a new electric service and meter at the site so Heartland’s equipment can operate independently from Helix’s pumps and monitoring equipment.

“Heartland Communications would like to thank Helix Water District for allowing us to install our VHF repeater on their water tank,” said Castillo. “This collaboration between Helix and Heartland is a win-win for the fire service and the community. It will provide the critical communications infrastructure needed to enhance public safety.”

The Heartland Communication Facility Authority provides emergency communication services for its member agencies, which include Alpine Fire, Bonita Fire, San Miguel Fire, City of El Cajon, City of La Mesa, City of Lemon Grove, Lakeside Fire, City of Santee, Barona Fire and Viejas Fire.

The Helix Water District treats and delivers water to 277,000 people in La Mesa, El Cajon, Lemon Grove, and parts of Spring Valley, Lakeside, and unincorporated San Diego County.