By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO–The 198-acre Lake Murray reservoir is a magnet for humans, animals and plants of all sorts. With a few notable exceptions, all are welcome, say reservoir keeper Gayle Havens and Friends of Lake Murray founder Barbara Cleves Anderson.
Since 1895, when the now-submerged, earthen La Mesa Dam was built on a small creek running through Alvarado Canyon, the lake has served principally as a fresh water reservoir, meeting the needs of a San Diego population that has never stopped growing.
After San Diego’s great floods of 1916, an enlarged reservoir was needed, so under the direction of James Murray, a Montana engineer after whom the lake was named, a new concrete dam 117 feet tall and 870 feet wide was constructed downstream of the La Mesa Dam by the Cuyamaca Water Company. Murray and Col. Ed Fletcher, for whom Fletcher Hills in nearby El Cajon is named, operated the dam until 1926, when they sold it to a forerunner company of today’s Helix Water District. Thirty five years later, in 1961, the dam and reservoir were transferred to the City of San Diego.
Able today to hold 4,818 acre feet of water, the lake is the last stop for fresh water coming from the California Water Project and the Colorado River before it goes through the adjacent Alvarado Filtration Plant and then is sent on its way to approximately 400,000 users within the City of San Diego. The city operates two other major filtration facilities at Miramar Lake and Otay Lake.
In the past, the Alvarado filtration plant with its Spanish colonial-style belltower building was available for sightseeing, but not since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when it was realized that systems controlling water supplies might also become targets. Both for reasons of security and for the safety of recreational users who might bump each other on the narrow passageway over the dam, a lakeside path that stretches 3.23 miles from the main entrance on Kiowa Street stops short of the filtration plant. One cannot walk all the way around the lake, but instead must retrace one’s steps.
Such inconvenience does not deter the lake’s recreational users, who include in ever increasing numbers boaters, anglers, bird watchers, joggers, bikers, walkers, picnickers, photographers and even participants in the annual Jewish observance of Tashlich, when as part of the Jewish New Year, sins are symbolically transferred to pieces of bread and are cast upon the waters — much to the delight of the ducks and other water fowl.
Some weekend days between 1,000 and 2,000 people might use the lake in one capacity or another, reports Havens. Except for vandals, believed to be teenagers who sneak into the park sometime between nightfall and the early morning hours and leave graffiti, attempt to steal or joyride in boats at their dock, and otherwise act immaturely, all lake users are desired patrons of the free facility.
Walking around the lake, one might see such terrestrial animals as rabbits, squirrels, lizards, rats, gophers, mice, and occasionally, in the area closest to the gated-off filtration plant, fox, coyotes and bobcat, according to Cleves Anderson, an enthusiastic animal watcher who generally goes on her lake runs in the early morning hours.
Fish in the lake include large mouth bass, bluegill, catfish, crappies, carp and rainbow trout, according to reservoir keeper Havens. Typically, large mouth bass will run in the six-pound range, but in the year 2000, one weighing 18 1/2 pounds surprised everyone, especially the fisherman who caught it from a float tube. It not only set the lake’s record, but the national record for the year 2000, Havens said.
The water fowl and arboreal bird population is ever changing as the lake is a stop on the Pacific Flyway. Ducks, coots, egrets and herons are commonplace, and recently two osprey have also made their home at the lake. Cleves Anderson says she is hoping the osprey are a breeding pair, but so far there is no evidence that they are. Ravens, blackbirds, sparrows, and other species common to San Diego County also are here in abundance. Sometimes pigeons and seagulls come too, looking for a handout.
An unwanted animal at Lake Murray, which has made its home there anyway, is the quagga mussel, a kind of fresh water clam that makes rabbits seem like reluctant breeders. No bigger than a 25-cent piece when grown, their spawn are tiny, no larger than a flea, but forming gritty colonies, they clog up pipes and screens, and rob the water of nutrients needed by indigenous species.
Thus, Lake Murray and other lakes in Southern California are wary of boats that have recently been in other fresh water lakes — the quagga mussels may have hitched a ride there. While some larger lakes with greater boating populations have thorough-going inspection programs, for now at least Lake Murray has simply posted a warning sign at its boat ramp.
While the matter is not now considered at a critical level, no one wants to see the lake suffer from an infestation as it did in the late 1970s when fast growing hydrilla choked off oxygen supplies in the water and threatened the natural ecology. To beat back the hydrilla, the lake had to be closed, its water levels lowered and an extensive eradication program undertaken. Eventually the “killa hydrilla” was eliminated.
Havens said that the small fleet of 35 boats and five kayaks at Lake Murray will be transferred to other lakes in San Diego because they generate insufficient revenue to compensate for the cost of keeping them available. That is but one effect of San Diego’s fiscal crisis: in another instance when a roadway was seen beginning to crack because of spreading root systems, city officials elected to remove nearby eucalyptus trees and reduce them to mulch rather than to pay the greater cost of repairing the pathway. Safety of the park’s user was a key factor in that decision.
Lake Murray is a part of the Mission Trails Regional Park. The highest point in the City of San Diego, 1592-foot Cowles Mountain, reflects in the lake, which is surrounded by homes located in the San Diego and Del Cerro sections of San Diego, and the suburban City of La Mesa. To make certain that pollutants from the sewers, automobiles and trash from these residential neighborhoods don’t run into the lake and foul the water supply, Lake Murray is surrounded by miles of diversion ditches.
Havens and such assistants as Karen Ivach, a Lake Aide II, keep the diversion ditches clear of debris and alert vector control when more mosquito fish are needed to prevent them from becoming breeding areas. Besides by runoff, the lake can be fouled by animal feces, one of the principal reasons owners are required to keep their dogs on a leash and to carry “mutt mittens” with them.
Havens and Ivach are both dog owners who sympathize with those who would like their pets to run free. However, they say they take their own dogs to places like Dog Beach and the dog run at Balboa Park, where off-leash activities are provided for. At the lake, unleashed dogs might come into conflicts with bikers, roller bladers or even other dogs, they note.
Cleves Anderson recommends that users of the lake become familiar with the names of its five fingers in the event that there is an accident or someone becomes ill. Telling a 9-11 dispatcher that “I’m just around the big bend” doesn’t help them direct EMT workers to the right place.
If you think of the dam and filtration plant as the wrist of a hand, says Cleves Anderson, then the first finger is Alvarado Bay, between the filtration plant and the main parking lot of Lake Murray. Here on Sundays fly fishermen teach children about casting. Here too, unfortunately, pet geese and other animals sometimes are abandoned by people, adding to the park’s wildlife population. Some people make it a habit to feed these birds, a humane yet controversial sentiment. Feeding the animals, instead of letting them forage for themselves, leads to burgeoning populations and possible changes in the overall ecology.
The second finger of the lake, near Baltimore Drive, is Padre Bay, where volunteers for “I Love a Clean San Diego” always seem to have their work cut out for them. The carp seem to love this part of the lake, attracting not only fishermen but also the great blue heron, attracted to those places where the fishing is easiest.
The third finger of the lake is San Carlos Bay, where, according to Cleves Anderson, a colony of turtles has taken up residence. “I also saw a raccoon family there” and this bay is where the osprey live. On one occasion, the osprey made the mistake of building their nests near a power line, and one morning “the branch was crackling and sparking, and it caught on fire.” San Diego Gas & Electric cleared the line, later building a more suitable nesting area nearby for the osprey, she recalled.
Cowles Bay, which is the where the lake comes closest to Cowles Mountain, seems to be the favorite haunt of red-wing blackbirds, who lift from the lake around daybreak, creating a big cloud. Further along this fourth finger of the lake one can sometimes find barn owls in nests near the baseball fields.
The fifth finger of the lake is Del Cerro Bay, which is where Cleves Anderson said she has spotted coyotes, bobcats, and sometimes fox.
Cleves Anderson is both a runner and a bird watcher. Approximately around 1988, the city began fencing off the lake to protect the fresh water supply. She organized a petition drive demanding that the fences come down, and gathered 3,500 signatures, persuading the city that “we need more parks, not less.” That was the beginning of Friends of Lake Murray, a group which has no formal charter but typically draws beetween 30 and 60 people to its meetings, at which people involved in the welfare of the lake and environs often are featured speakers.
Every September, Cleves Anderson said, with September 25, 2010, already set aside is the “I Love a Clean San Diego” day at Lake Murray. Last year, 190 volunteers hauled out trash.
Havens used to work as a private landscaper, but as a single mom, she decided it would be prudent to take a job with a regular paycheck. She has now been at the lake for nearly 15 years, rising from Lake Aide I, to Lake Aide II, to Assistant Reservoir Keeper, to Reservoir Keeper. She noted that many groups have made her job easier by dedicating themselves to improvement projects of the beloved lake, These include the local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, church groups, and the Scouts, she said.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. This article ran previously on examiner.com