MWD Approves Lake Release Agreement

Big Bear Lake photo
Big Bear Municipal Water District will likely begin releasing water from Big Bear Lake Dam (written by Jonathan Riley of the Big Bear Grizzly).

Big Bear Municipal Water District’s board of directors approved an amended agreement Oct. 1 that could lead to a lake release starting as early as Oct. 8.

The board approved an amendment to an agreement with San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, also known in local water agency lingo simply as Valley, a water wholesaler that provides water to Bear Valley Mutual Water Company, also known simply as Mutual, on behalf of Big Bear MWD.

As the company that originally built Big Bear Lake Dam, Mutual owns and has rights to water in Big Bear Lake. To prevent Mutual from taking too much water and drastically affecting the lake level, Big Bear MWD has an agreement with Valley to provide water to Mutual for a set price.

If the lake is high enough, Valley can take water straight out of the lake and keep the money. If it’s low, Valley usually has to find some other source to supply Mutual. But in 2012 the agreement was changed, allowing Valley to take water from the lake even when it’s low if the company previously didn’t take water it had rights to when the lake was higher.

Between the time it came up for discussion at the Sept. 3 MWD board meeting and the Oct. 1 meeting when it was approved, there was a sentence added to the agreement relating to the flow rate of the proposed lake release, which had originally been proposed at 5 cubic feet per second.

“Valley District and Big Bear will work together to increase this flow rate, if possible,” the amended agreement stated as proposed in the Oct. 1 meeting agenda. “Costs for any infrastructure upgrades needed to accurately meter flows greater than 5 cfs will be shared by Valley District and Big Bear.”

Despite this clause sounding like it puts a greater burden on Big Bear and the lake, MWD General Manager Mike Stephenson and MWD directors agreed that there’s little chance of the clause practically coming into effect. MWD does not currently have the infrastructure to safely and accurately release more than 5 cfs.

MWD board member Bob Ludecke questioned whether the use of the word “shared” in the clause implied that costs would be shared 50-50.

“That wording almost seems like a lawyer’s paradise,” Ludecke said.

After consultation with district legal counsel, the board members were told the wording was ambiguous, so they approved a slightly different tentative version with the phrase “shared equally” replacing “shared.”

In making a motion to approve the amended agreement, director Vince Smith said that despite the wording sounding like something that could be expensive for Big Bear, it’s unlikely to lead anywhere. The cost of making improvements to allow MWD to release water at a faster rate would be more than the value of the water Valley is entitled to, according to Smith. The idea doesn’t make financial sense.

Stephenson didn’t go as far as saying that the actual total value of the water is less than the cost of making the necessary infrastructure changes to release more quickly, but said it was indeed prohibitively expensive. The value of Valley’s water is about $300,000, Stephenson said, and the infrastructure improvements would cost about $200,000.

Because of the minor change to “shared equally,” the agreement now has to go back to Valley once again for final approval.

“Tentatively, they would approve on the 7th, and someone would designate a delivery point, and we could deliver 5 cfs starting on the 8th of October,” Stephenson said. But there’s one important condition: Mutual has to designate a location where it wants its water delivered for the lake release to start. As of Oct. 6, Mutual hadn’t done so, and until it does the lake release is on hold. For Big Bear, that’s good news.

In September, Stephenson calculated that between Oct. 8 and the end of the year, if water was consistently released at a rate of 5 cfs, about 2.75 inches of the lake would be released. But Stephenson says he was told since then by Mutual’s general manager that Mutual won’t be needing any Big Bear Lake water during December. Stephenson now estimates the release will be less than 2 inches, probably totalling 1.5 to 1.75 inches of the lake. If Mutual doesn’t quickly designate a location where it wants the water sent, it could hypothetically be even less.

Stephenson also said at the Oct. 1 meeting that MWD had spent the past couple of weeks checking the calibration of its release system.

“I feel very confident that we’ll be able to measure and deliver water as accurately as anybody can do,” Stephenson said.

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