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Fabulous Santee Lakes turn 50

It wasn't only the Capitan Grande and Conejo Creek Indians that got shafted in 1935 when the City of San Diego flooded their reservations by building El Capitan Dam: a bunch of gringo farmers, ranchers, and cattlemen living downstream in what is now Santee suffered also.

The Indians were involuntarily moved to Viejas and Barona with the obvious foresight that those would be better locations for casinos.

Long before the city pulled its version of China Town on the native Kumeyaay, the redoubtable Jennie Blodgett had married George Cowles. (It is pronounced "coles" now "cowls."

Sadly for Jennie the venerable Mr. Cowles passed away much too early get the town named after him. He had to settle for the stubby "mountain" now surrounded by Mission Trails Regional Park.

But Mr. Cowles' passing created happiness for a very smart "realtor and surveyor" named Milton Santee who, just like John Kerry, knew the right question: "Where are all the rich widows?"

Milton apparently helped Jennie forget George. He developed the town and Jennie started naming everything after him, which is why it is now the City of Santee and not the City of George.

While we are name chasing, you should know that good old Hosmer McKoon came to town in 1885 and bought over 9,000 acres from the Santees.

Hosmer also loved his spouse and so named his ranch after wife Fannie: yep, Fanita Ranch.

The Scripps Family (which competed against the Fletchers for water-development opportunities) took over the Fanita Ranch in 1898.

During World War II, the feds grabbed 2,300 acres for what are now Miramar, Admiral Baker Field and Tierrasanta.

The president of the Carlton-Santee Co., Bill Mast, provided another famous name for the community, Mast Boulevard. Egotist!

The little east-county village of Santee progressed from whistle stop, through major unincorporated residential community, to the thriving modern-day city of Santee.

When the population started to grow, the residents formed the Santee County Water District, later renamed the Padre Dam Municipal Water District (PDMWD) to meet their fluid needs.

The District acquires its water through purchases from the Metropolitan Water District and our San Diego area distributor: the County Water Authority.

With its water supply assured, the growing metropolis faced its next big decision, what to do about its sewage.

It had two major choices: to join the San Diego City-sponsored Metropolitan Sewage District that constructed the Point Loma Sewer Treatment plant or not.

Connecting to Point Loma presented two problems: a long expensive pipeline and a long expensive commitment.

Instead, under the spectacularly far-sighted leadership of District Engineer Ray Stoyer, the district decided to pioneer the idea of water reclamation.

It is a physical fact that, since the beginning of time, all water on Earth is reclaimed. The only question is how (by God or man) and how well ("level of polish.")

The district acquired lower Sycamore Canyon (before the City of San Diego could dump trash in it) from Mr. Mast.

The science and practicalities of water reclamation were then new. It was believed all one had to do was to let water percolate through several yards of underground soil. Not completely true, as they found out.

The very notion of water reclamation also ran contrary to the near-sighted and (yet even today) dysfunctional regulations adopted pursuant to the Porter-Cologne Clean Water Act by the state and regional water-quality bureaucracies.

The brilliant Mr. Stoyer presciently saw, more than 50 years ago, that it made no sense to import water from throughout Northern California via the California Water Project and throughout western America via the Colorado River to use it only briefly and then toss it in the ocean.

It must have been hard on the adjacent homeowners when the Santee Lakes Project commenced. Sort of like living downwind in Bay Ho before San Diego stopped dumping sewage in Mission Bay.

But you should see the magnificent Santee Lakes now!

In this day and age of rampant government incompetence, The Padre Dam Municipal Water District's Santee Lakes Project is a standout exception.

Gone is the image of the bleak, carved chain of industrial looking ponds. (They are now officially lakes one through seven.) Instead is a family-oriented Garden of Eden. Just for starters, the entire Lake project is entirely self-supporting through user fees that once paid are well spent.

The primary purpose of the lakes, to save precious water resources has been accomplished. Since their pioneering inception, the technology of water reclamation has advanced by leaps and bounds though at one time President Lyndon Johnson himself had to intervene to keep the project "afloat."

The reclaimed water constitutes a drought-proof irrigation supply throughout Santee formerly made a dust bowl by the El Capitan Dam.

The lake park features endless recreation opportunities such as: fishing, boating, swimming, hiking, jogging, organized sports, community events, picnicking, and all that normal stuff.

But they also provide clean, water-side cabins, even several that float, and first-class camp sites for tents and RVs.

The landscaping is luxurious and park maintenance exceeds even Disneyland's standards.

Solar panels not only collect enough energy to meet fully half of the parks electrical needs, they protect revenue-producing SUV storage facilities in tasteful locations.

So, thank you PDMWD and visionary Ray Stoyer for showing that a competently run government can do things better and cheaper and all the while conserve critical natural resources.

Happy birthday Santee Lakes.


Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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3 UserComments
James Peasley, Padre Dam Board of Director, Division 5 9:53am June 2, 2011

A very interesting and well written article. A good book to read about the history of Santee Lakes is "The Town That Launders Its Water" by Leonard A. Stevens published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. I enjoyed it immensely. Thank you for the article Larry.

Doug Wilson, Board of Director-Division 1 3:17pm May 27, 2011

This article is especially gratifying coming from such a noteworthy past politician and judge who has done so much for our city, state and community. I was surprised that Larry Stirling knew so much of our history. Padre Dam's Santee Lakes are truly a marvel in providing a major community recreational resource with no tax subsidy...including no impact to water or sewer rates. Thank you for this history lessson Larry. Your attention is much appreciated.

Chris Kleitsch 5:14pm May 25, 2011

Great, informative article. So nice to read something that has been well researched and presented for our enlightenment. CK