San Diego Launches $10-Million Assessment of Aging City Dams, Including Three Rated ‘Poor’

San Diego is launching a $10-million effort to complete risk assessments of all nine of the city’s aging dams — only three of which are considered in satisfactory condition. City officials say the assessments are expected to reveal problems that will require an estimated $1 billion in repairs and upgrades in coming decades — and possibly some replacement dams in extreme cases. San Diego’s dams are among the oldest in the state and the nation. State officials said three dams are in “poor” condition — Hodges, El Capitan and Lower Otay — and three have been rated “fair”: Morena, Barrett and Lake Murray.

People walk along the top of the newly opened El Capitan Dam in 1935. Photo: San Diego County Historical Society

1935: El Capitan Dam Dedication

In its quest to supply water to its growing population, the City of San Diego claimed water rights to the San Diego River, and filed for a dam. A Mission Gorge site was first proposed on land owned by business leader Ed Fletcher. Another prominant business leader, John D. Spreckels lobbied for a dam farther north at El Capitan. After a lengthy civic debate, the city chose Spreckels’ project in 1924.

The tug of war over the project fueled a years-long political and legal battle over Native American pueblo rights to water, which affected the construction of the El Capitan Dam. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the City of San diego in 1930, allowing dam construction to proceed. The dam opened to great fanfare and public walking tours in 1935.