- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- THE WORST OF IT: This is the view from the north shore of Lake San Antonio, were low water levels have resulted in decreased attendance, decreased revenue, and potential layoffs to Monterey County parks and recreation staff.
The road to Lake San Antonio is bordered by plenty of indications of how dry California is these days. Barren hillsides are more pale than the typical golden-brown hue of grass in the summer. There’s the occasional pocket of scorched earth studded with trees charred to a crisp from a roadside fire sparked by a chain from a boat trailer or maybe a cigarette thrown from a car window. And the closer you get to the lake’s north shore, the more lonely the road becomes.
The north shore campsites lay empty, stores and rental cabins are shuttered, and the massive boat ramp has been closed since last year. From this vantage point, there is no lake; instead, a field of green where bees buzz among the shrubs that have taken over what was once the lake bottom. Ground squirrels have colonized the crumbling banks.
As far as lake levels go, this is the worst of it: At less than 4 percent of its capacity, Lake San Antonio is all but dried up. The south shore campground is still open and looks over some water, where there’s just enough that it’s become known as a puddle.
Nearby Lake Nacimiento—the more frequented and populated of the two bodies of water—is at 19 percent capacity and has seen its normal attendance cut in half. Fewer visitors means far fewer fees collected from entrances, campers, and boat permits. A decline in revenues means a shrinking operating budget.
Both lakes are overseen by Monterey County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, and are decoupled from the county’s general fund, instead operated on an enterprise budget, where revenues are self-generated. When revenues drop, available expenditures follow. That’s put the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in a difficult position as the leaders finalize the 2014-2015 budget. That budget originally proposed layoffs: 14 positions from lake operations staff, including eight park rangers, a mechanic, and administrative and maintenance staff. Such a move would force the already-lean team to make drastic adaptive measures.
“With the reductions that we’ve had in the past, it’s almost a breaking point in our ability to really operate our parks and maintain them,” said Simon Salinas, Monterey County’s 3rd District supervisor, whose district includes the lake areas and runs along Highway 101 in the Salinas Valley.
Salinas told New Times that he and Monterey County 5th District Supervisor Dave Potter have formed an ad hoc committee that’s currently looking for ways to stave off as many cuts as possible. Pink slips have been issued to the 14 employees whose jobs may be cut, and the supervisors delayed a final decision at their June 10 meeting, buying time to look at alternatives to the proposed $4 million cut. Salinas said he’s aiming to keep all 14 positions until next year and hire a consultant to help get the parks budget in order. So far, there’s an option that may draw money from another part of the budget and retain almost half of those positions. The county’s budget committee is also assessing the situation, and the supervisors will be revisiting the issue and making a decision as early as July 29. Whatever positions will be cut will take effect Oct. 1.
The possibility of cuts and the associated reduction of services and other ripple effects have residents and property owners along the shores of Lake Nacimiento worried. Bill Capps, an Atascadero resident who owns a cabin on the lake’s north shore, is a director of the Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee. Capps was among a small group of locals that has been engaging with Monterey County officials to express concerns.
Capps said that a prime worry is the possible decrease in public safety because a smaller stable of park rangers will mean fewer patrols. They’re also worried about how a multi-agency mussel inspection program will hold up, and whether it will continue to prevent unwelcome, invasive mussels from gaining a foothold in local waters. The program has so far been very effective in screening boats for quagga and zebra mussels, which, once established in a freshwater habitat, can wreak havoc on the ecosystem, killing off the food chain, populating the shores with colonies of their sharp shells, and clogging up pipes.
While the budget situation may mean some tough cuts, a reduction to the mussel inspection program won’t be one, said Nick Chiulos, an assistant administrative officer in Monterey County. Chiulos recently became the parks and recreation department’s interim director, a position he normally oversees.
“That’s an area we know we can’t afford to not do,” Chiulos told New Times. “We can’t and we won’t abandon the quagga mussel program.”
Both of the man-made lakes are a major water supply for the Salinas Valley and provide some water to parts of San Luis Obispo County. The Nacimiento Water Project’s 16,000 acre-feet allotment to San Luis Obispo County has become a beacon of light for areas where water supplies are becoming much less reliable in times of drought. SLO County officials—who are closely watching Monterey County’s budget process while scrambling to come up with adaptive contingency plans—echo Chiulos’ sentiment that they’ll do whatever is required to keep the mussel inspection program robust. Even though Lake Nacimiento and the shores surrounding it are in SLO County, the lake itself belongs to Monterey County.
As for what will become of above-ground services? That’s a little bit more murky. Chiulos said the worst-case scenario would be closing Lake San Antonio, keeping “someone out there to make sure that the buildings don’t fall down,” and redirecting all other staff to Nacimiento.
“What we’re really trying to do is hold down the fort,” said Tom Shepherd, deputy chief ranger for the lakes. Shepherd, who is retiring this year, is one of two management posts among the park ranger positions that may be cut. Shepherd couldn’t say specifically what services would look like if cuts are finalized, but he said that staff will likely be stretched thin. While cuts wouldn’t take effect until October, both Shepherd and Bill Capps worry what next summer will bring if it ever rains again and people once again flock to the lake. Because park rangers are law enforcement personnel, an extensive process is required for their hiring. Background checks and training take about a year, which will mean significant lag time between jobs being filled and boots hitting the ground.
“We’re hoping that the board recognizes that it will rain again and retention of staff is important, and that we still need to maintain these parks, even when the visitors aren’t here,” Shepherd said.
As a final decision nears, Shepherd said that the supervisors have shown a great deal of support for the parks, and they’ve taken the weathering of these tough decisions very seriously.
“I’m hoping that the board can find a way to avoid layoffs,” Shepherd said.
Contact staff writer Jono Kinkade at email@example.com.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay