Lake Nacimiento lawsuit continues hearings in 2024
Lawsuit alleges improper management of lake by Monterey County
– A lawsuit filed against the Monterey County Water Resource Agency by the Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee (NRWMAC) is entering its fifth year of litigation in the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court. The NRWMAC is suing for no less than $120 million, which they allege is the monetary damage to property owners on Lake Nacimiento due to recreation loss from the Monterey County water mismanagement.
“The [NRWMAC] lawsuit’s primary goals involve improving Lake Nacimiento water management, which is controlled and implemented by Monterey County but impacts residents of San Luis Obispo County who have no voting rights concerning the lake…for years, Monterey County and its water agencies have not communicated or cooperated sincerely with NRWMAC representatives about making changes to water management or upholding existing recreation rights at the lake, and this has resulted in our lawsuit against them,” said Charles Viescas, board member of NRWMAC.
Monterey County officials say they do not comment on active litigation.
The lawsuit was filed on Jan. 17, 2019, and is composed of three parts: NRWMAC alleges that the Monterey County Water Resources Agency has mismanaged the water levels of Lake Nacimiento, rendering it inoperable for recreational uses, and that the agency did not share all documents related to a Public Records Act. The lawsuit also asks for an injunction to stop the agency from releasing water above the legally permitted amount, which is determined by the California State Water Resources Control Board.
In addition, a complaint was filed with the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) on Jan. 18, 2019, with the NRWMAC claiming that the Monterey County Water Resources Agency has released more water than legally allowed from Lake Nacimiento. CalEPA permits up to 180,000 acre-feet of water removal from the lake annually, with the NRWMAC alleging that 184,626 acre-feet of water was released from Oct. 1, 2017 to Sept. 31, 2018.
“Low lake water levels caused by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency’s continued mismanagement affect and create issues not just for lake residents and visitors but also for the wildlife, fish, and endangered species living at the lake. It causes degradation of their habitat and enables invasive species, like the Quagga mussel, to thrive and destroy the water and plants…Lake Nacimiento needs proper and verifiable management of water reserves so that when California is in a period of drought, there is a dependable reserve for agriculture, wildlife, and homes,” said Viescas, adding that “Lake Nacimiento is one of the few lakes in California that remains virtually Quagga-free due to NRWMAC’s efforts to promote high standards for boat inspections and provide public education about the Quagga mussel.”
There have been multiple hearings and updates regarding the lawsuit since it was filed in 2019. On Jan. 17, 2019, the NRWMAC filed the lawsuit against the Monterey County Water Resources Agency with three claims: that the agency has mismanaged water levels required for recreation, that the agency has not produced all documents per a Public Records Act, and that the agency has released more water than legally allowed, leading to NRWMAC filing an injunction to stop water release above legal limits.
Throughout 2022, the San Luis Obispo County judge referred to the California State Water Resource Control Board for a report on whether the yearly water release quota was exceeded. On Sept. 26, 2023, the SLO County judge reviewed the State Water Board Report and responses by both Monterey County and NRWMAC to said report. A resolution was reached during a hearing on Nov. 17, 2023, where the results of the State Water Board Report were accepted and the stay on the lawsuit lifted to allow progression of the lawsuit. The most recent hearing on Jan. 17 was to review progress and to set a date for trial.
Monterey County has managed Lake Nacimiento since 1957, which is when the Nacimiento Dam was built. The Monterey County Water Resources Agency operates two reservoirs, Nacimiento and San Antonio, with the goals of “flood protection, water conservation, Salinas Valley Water project operation, and recreation with safety always being the primary consideration,” according to their website. Lake Nacimiento, also called The Dragon Lake, is around 18 miles long and can hold 377,000 acre-feet of water.
The NRWMAC reports there are around 6,500 constituents of Lake Nacimiento, including residents from housing communities Heritage Ranch and Oak Shores, and that the lake is “one of the many favorite tourist destinations of seasonal visitors coming to Paso Robles, and the larger San Luis Obispo County area, that offer short-term lodging rentals and amenities.
Tourism has a major economic impact on the lives of owners and employees of hotels, Airbnbs, restaurants, wineries, breweries, fueling stations, grocery stores, and retail shops…in addition, each household in San Luis Obispo County benefits directly from lower state taxes, and important community services such as law enforcement and road maintenance due to the Transient Occupancy Tax program, which collects a tax on short-term lodging rentals.”
According to the NRWMAC, a water level below 760 feet above mean sea level does not allow for adequate recreational uses on Lake Nacimiento due to navigational hazards and unusable ramps. As of Jan. 30, 2024, the lake level is at 770 feet above mean sea level; the level was at 790 feet above mean sea level on the same date in 2023, at 737 feet above mean sea level in 2022, and at 750 feet above mean sea level in 2021.
“If the NRWMAC lawsuit prevails over the Monterey County Resources Agency, it will start the correction of a dire situation that has gone on for too long. The agency will be compelled to create and adopt plans that protect recreation rights and improve water management in the future for Lake Nacimiento property owners and recreational users. Lake Nacimiento recreational uses include boating, fishing, horseback riding, camping, hiking, and observation and photography of wildlife and birds whose natural habitat requires proper water management to support it,” said Viescas, adding that “the people who own houses at Lake Nacimiento have zero voting rights regarding the lake environment and issues that affect their properties and quality of life. It is literally a case of taxation without representation for these folks. Their property is registered in San Luis Obispo County and managed solely by Monterey County. Their only hope of being treated fairly is through the NRWMAC lawsuit and the positive reinforcement they receive from communities like Paso Robles.”
The NRWMAC is a non-profit organization created in 1992 that is “dedicated to representing lake area property owners, visitors, and sports and recreation enthusiasts who enjoy and treasure the beauty of Lake Nacimiento,” Viescas said. The committee holds one seat on the Monterey County Water Resources Agency Reservoir Operation Committee, which meets monthly and advises the Monterey County Water Resources Agency on various topics. In addition, the NRWMAC is involved with the County of Monterey, Salinas Valley farmers, and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency in conversations about water quality, Quagga mussels, recreations, and more. The committee also holds public education events, completes training for vessel examinations on the lake via the Resident Vessel Program, and monitors ongoing and future projects affecting Lake Nacimiento.
“We need help from Paso Robles individuals and business leaders to raise awareness of NRWMAC’s struggle and lawsuit at the local, state, and even national level. We welcome and appreciate people at all levels contacting us with offers of support…we need Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County community members to know that monetary donations and community fundraising are greatly needed now to fund NRWMAC’s legal expenses.,” said Viescas.
For more information about Lake Nacimiento via Monterey County, visit their website here. For more information about NRWMAC for donations, volunteer opportunities, and updates, visit their website here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.