To San Diego County residents who drive Interstate 15, Lake Hodges has been their drought meter. Since the rainy El Niño year of 1998, they've watched the lake's edge slowly recede from a mile east of the freeway bridge between Escondido and Rancho Bernardo to somewhere out of sight to the west. "Some people think the lake is gone," says Jim Brown of the City of San Diego Water Department as he backs a 15-foot fishing boat out of a slip on the rental dock near the southeast corner of the lake. "They'll call and ask, 'Why did you let Lake Hodges dry up? You've mismanaged that lake.' "
Lake Hodges hasn't dried up, but it's certainly low. As Brown steers the boat around the end of the dock and down the finger of the lake that stretches toward Interstate 15, the boat's propeller kicks up silt off the bottom, which lies only three or four feet below the surface. Brown points toward the right bank rising steeply out of the water. Three different types of foliage striate the bank. Within ten feet of the water's edge grows vibrant green grass, two feet tall in spots. Above that is a stripe of willow bushes. Above the willows, two non-native species, wild tobacco and the giant reed arundo donax, compete. Just up the bank from that, the soil and rocks change from a dark to a light brown along a level line. "That's the high-water mark," Brown explains. "That's the level at which the water spills over the dam."
To figure out how far above the surface the lake's high-water mark is, Brown looks at a printout of the water levels of San Diego Water Department reservoirs: Morena, Barrett, Otay, Murray, San Vicente, El Capitan, Miramar, Sutherland, and Hodges. "If we go down the page to Hodges here, it's at 74.25." That's the lake's depth at the dam. "Well, I know from memory that this lake spills [over the dam] at 115 feet. So the lake is 40.75 feet down. From the surface here up to that waterline is 40.75 feet."
The channel the boat is putting through is deserted except for a couple of shore fishermen on the south side and a few white-and-black grebes sitting on the surface. The grebes -- about the size of a duck but sleeker, black on the back, white on the neck and throat -- hardly seem to notice the boat passing within a dozen feet. Before long, tree stumps sticking up out of the water ahead induce Brown to turn the boat around. "This would be the mouth of the San Dieguito River, where it spills into the lake. We're over a mile from the I-15 bridge."
That reminds Brown of a former subject. "We get calls from people and they say, 'What are you going to do about Hodges? It's turning into a mud puddle.' What they don't understand is this lake is not fed by an aqueduct. It's fed exclusively by runoff. It's not like San Vicente, which has not really been impacted by the drought because it's on the pipeline. So when people see that lake way up and this one way down, it causes them to scratch their heads."
Generally, nine out of ten gallons of tap water drunk in San Diego come from outside of the county, either the Colorado River or Northern California. That water is transported here in aqueducts and pipelines and stored in reservoirs such as Lake San Vicente, Otay Lakes, and Lake Murray. As Brown points out, Lake Hodges is not part of that system. All of the water in it fell as rain here in the county. Under those circumstances, it's surprising that there's any water in it at all, until you take a look at a watershed map, which shows the land area that drains into Lake Hodges. "Hodges has a huge watershed," Brown says. "It goes all the way up to the Iron Springs area on the side of Volcan Mountain near Julian. And it comes down into Santa Ysabel Creek and merges with a number of streams in San Pasqual Valley. And by the time it's headed out of the valley, it's called the San Dieguito River."
Under normal circumstances, the San Dieguito River spills into the lake south of Escondido, though right now any flow occurring is subterranean. But in very wet times, the flow coming into the lake can be enough, as Brown puts it, to "fill and spill this lake in 24 hours. It's a startling fact, but there have been times when so much water has been coming into Hodges from rainfall and runoff that it would have filled and spilled in a 24-hour period had it been empty. That's 30,000 acre feet in a day. Hey, look at the guy over there pulling up a bass! Conversely, we can go through a ten-year period and not see that much water."
Viewed from above, Lake Hodges resembles a caterpillar in motion; its midsection is hunched up toward the north, as it prepares for a westward lunge. Just after Brown steers the boat around the peninsula forming this midsection, he points toward the left bank and says, "Look, there's a little buck right there."
On the bank, a buck with velvety antlers, two points on each side -- "That's a four-pointer by Eastern standards, two-pointer by Western standards," Brown explains. The buck bounds up the steep bank away from the water's edge, where he had been drinking or eating the fresh green grass growing in the moist soil. A much smaller doe ambles up the hill behind the buck. When the two are above the high-water line, they stop, turn, and stare at the passing boat.
As we near the dam at the west end of the lake, the number of fishermen increases. Some cast from the shore, some fish from boats, others from float tubes that look like waders with an inner tube attached to them. Brown says the detrimental effect of drought on the recreational use of the lakes has been "...huge. You can't launch boats [because the water level is ten feet below the bottom of the boat launch ramp]. This lake, when it is full, is generally our bread-and-butter lake. It would generate enough income that it allowed us to support the other reservoirs in our system."
The revenue loss caused by the lake's low level Brown estimates to be around $100,000. "It's $5 to put a boat in, and it's $5 for adults, $2.50 for kids 8 to 15. Kids 7 and under are free. So two adults coming out here, fishing and launching a boat, it will cost them $15, if they could launch it. But they can't this season, and it really impacts us greatly, because we are not in a position to create the new physical facilities that are needed to accommodate people. We were going to try to pour more launch ramp this off-season. We poured 100 feet of ramp last year in preparation for this season, but the water did not come up onto it.
"There's an interesting irony in this low-water situation," Brown adds. "We start our season here in February or March. Whether or not we start in February or March often depends on whether the creek is running too high where it crosses the road as you enter the lake. If it's running too high to have people crossing it, we have to wait a little bit until it subsides. Well, that hasn't been an issue lately. We typically close down season at the end of October, but in a year like this, where attendance is going to be falling off and interest is going to be falling off, we will probably close it earlier to try to save some expenses."
And Lake Hodges presents some personal irony for Brown. "When I started my career with the city," he recalls, "one of the first challenges that I had was opening up this lake -- in 1976, as I recall -- because it had gotten 'so big.' We'd had many years of drought, and it had been closed since 1957 because it was so low. Then we got some rain, and the lake filled up a bit, and we reopened it under pressure because people were coming to us saying, 'Hodges has filled up. Reopen it!' This year I'm retiring, and one of my final challenges is operating this lake while everyone is lamenting how low it is. The irony is, it's higher now than it was when we reopened it in 1976, when everybody was saying it was so high."