OC Grand Jury: Stalled negotiations forced Irvine Lake closure

Orange County’s largest freshwater lake can still be a draw for anglers, according to report.

SANTA ANA—The largest freshwater lake in Orange County has been closed to the public since 2016, thanks to a series of stalled negotiations involving at least four parties – including OC Parks, the public agency tasked with managing Dana Point Harbor. Re-opening Irvine Lake, however, would be a major benefit for anglers and other recreational interests. These were the findings of a May 13 report issued by the Orange County Grand Jury.

Jurors issued the 30-page report after reviewing the lake’s history, ownership and conditions leading up to its 2016 closure.

Irvine Lake lacks a master plan for recreational activities and each of the parties involved with the inland waterway are minimally engaged with each other, resulting in what is now a three-plus year stalemate involving Orange County, two water districts and The Irvine Company.

The grand jury made several recommendations, which would give the parties involved a path to re-open Irvine Lake in the near future. These recommendations will be reviewed in the next issue of FishRap.

One of the major issues surrounding Irvine Lake is the lack of government oversight and planning. The Irvine Company managed Irvine Lake’s recreational activities between 1928 and 1993. Serrano Water District became more involved with the recreational aspects of Irvine Lake in 1993.

Irvine Lake’s water levels experiences wide fluctuations, according to the grand jury.

Creation of Irvine Lake

Irvine Lake was first accessible to the recreating public in 1941, but the inland waterway actually dates back to the late 1920s. Construction on Santiago Dam started in 1929; The Irvine Company and Serrano Irrigation District crafted a joint agreement to help make the dam a reality. The dam’s structure was completed in 1931, with the reservoir filled with water by 1933 – creating Irvine Lake.

Fish were planted into the lake in the late 1930s, with anglers and boaters allowed to access the waterway by 1941.

“The dam’s initial purpose was for, irrigation and municipal water use. With heavy suburban sprawl that has occurred since the 1960s, agriculture along lower Santiago Creek has been drastically reduced,” the grand jury report stated. “Conversely, the need for water storage and distribution to urban users has increased. Today the dam marks the end of Santiago Creek. All the discharge is retained in the reservoir and downstream flow is limited to seepage and released storm water.”

The primary function of Irvine Lake, according to a 1928 agreement between the Irvine Company and a pair of irrigation districts, was to act as a reservoir. Recreational aspects of the lake – fishing, boating, etc. – were not allowed to interfere with the water rights usage of interested parties, such as the Irvine Company or water districts associated with Irvine Lake.

Access & Parties Involved

The Irvine Company dedicated 2,500 acres of open space surrounding Irvine Lake to Orange County. Irvine Company’s leadership dedicated the 2,500 acres, according to the Grand Jury, to act as a permanent open space for the enjoyment of Orange County residents.

OC Parks was the government agency tasked with restoring and maintaining the dedicated land, according to the grand jury. Water recreation rights to Irvine Lake, plus access to adjacent land parcels, would be granted to OC Parks in consideration for its newly designated tasks – but the dedication, members of the grand jury stated, required an agreement between the water districts actively managing the waterway.

Those entities are Serrano Water District and Irvine Ranch Water District.

OC Parks

Orange County’s official involvement with Irvine Lake was not established until 2014 – more than 80 years after the lake was created. The Irvine Company donated 2,500 acres of land to Orange County for park uses in 2014. OC Parks was designated as the county department involved with Irvine Lake.

Herein lies the problem: OC Parks can help make Irvine Lake great again (pun not intended), but needs certain access issues to be resolved before meaningful action can be taken to benefit anglers, boaters and other recreational parties.

Complication matters: OC Parks won’t be able to proceed in making improvements at Irvine Lake without certain financial records, which stems from an impasse on water-based recreation rights.

“Given OC Parks’ financial constraints, OC Parks cannot proceed in the absence of financial information regarding expected operating profits from water-based recreation,” the grand jury stated in its report. “A continued impasse on the water-based recreation rights will deny both parties its share of potential income, and more importantly continue the delay of the reopening of water recreation at Irvine Lake to the public.”

Members of the grand jury stated a few conditions for Orange County to receive The Irvine Company’s 75 percent interest in recreation rights. Meeting the conditions, however, does not necessarily give OC Parks a free and clear path to Irvine Lake.

“Even if … OC Parks obtains the ability to use the water for public recreational activities, the geographic conditions at the lake may hinder OC Parks ability to do so,” the grand jury report stated. “For example, the lakebed is much larger than the current body of water. Thus, OC Parks will still lack access over the lakebed to provide direct access to the water for recreational activities.

“At that point, OC Parks, [Irvine Ranch Water District] and [Santiago Water District] may need to negotiate additional agreements (e.g. license, permit, or easement) to grant OC Parks access to the dry lakebed for recreation-serving uses such as launch ramps for rental and/or private fishing boats, vehicle access, lakeshore fishing, etc.,” the grand jury report continued.

The grand jury also noted OC Parks would have to spend about $5 million to restore habitats, construct and maintain trails, and make other improvements for public access.

Reason For Hope?

A stalemate involving OC Parks, Serrano Water District and Irvine Ranch Water District forced Irvine Lake to shut down in 2016 – which the grand jury said cause Orange County to lose out on certain revenues.

“The Irvine Company made public its intention to transfer certain land parcels it owned surrounding Irvine Lake to Orange County in perpetuity for the benefit of its residents,” the grand jury stated in its report. “The land transfer triggered a series of negotiations among, primarily, Orange County Parks, Serrano Water District and Irvine Ranch Water District, seeking agreements on certain matters to move the action forward.

“Those negotiations stalled and in March 2016, Irvine Lake was closed to the public for fishing, boating and other water recreation,” the report continued. “This closure has and continues to result in lost revenues for Orange County taxpayers in addition to lost recreation for its residents.”

Members of the grand jury, however, expressed optimism for Irvine Lake’s future. The question is whether the legalities involved with water and land rights will be resolved.

“There is good reason to believe that Irvine Lake and the property transferred to Orange County by The Irvine Company will once again provide residents with a unique recreational experience,” the grand jury report stated. “Further, the involvement of the Orange County Parks in the future of Irvine Lake has the potential to make the recreational land and water experiences at the Irvine Lake area property better and more varied than ever before.”

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