Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

Vail Dam replacement inches ahead as its price tag rises to $95 million

Tim O'Leary

Special to Village News

A last remnant of the region's pioneer past, Vail Dam, is prepping for a $95 million facelift.

The project, which has been in the works for ages, is needed to protect the Temecula area from a sudden, catastrophic flood that could be triggered by a shift in the fickle Elsinore fault.

"It has to be replaced," Jake Wiley, a Fallbrook resident who serves as the assistant general manager in charge of engineering for the Rancho California Water District, said. "It has been deemed a potential hazard."

Rancho serves a 100,000-acre area that is home to more than 150,000 people and encompasses Temecula and parts of Murrieta, French Valley, the Santa Rosa Plateau and the wine country.

Chunks of Rancho's jurisdiction were last flooded 30 years ago, when water-logged soils could not absorb the torrential rains that subsequently overwhelmed parts of Murrieta, Old Town Temecula and Camp Pendleton.

Flood-prone Murrieta Creek has since been tamed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The danger now is the combination of a sullen earthquake fault and a thin-walled, 132-foot tall dam that was built in 1948 to hold back the 1,100-acre Vail Lake.

The dam and lake are located about 10 miles southeast of Temecula. When the dam was built, the lake anchored the corner of the 84,500-acre Vail Ranch. Besides the ranch, the region's population then numbered a few thousand people living in Old Town and the Pechanga Indian reservation.

Vail Lake was created when a pioneer rancher spent $1 million to divert Temecula Creek flows for use by his cattle and crops.

Six years ago, Rancho officials estimated that it would cost $34 million to make repairs and modifications to the dam. At that time, they predicted the work could probably begin in a few years.

But time, inflation, higher construction costs and new engineering and permitting requirements have taken their toll. The project's anticipated cost is now $95 million and the start of work is at least two years away.

All the while, the 110-mile Elsinore fault bides its time and broods.

An array of authoritative sources describe the geologic fault as part of a trilateral split of the San Andreas fault system. The Elsinore is said to be one of the largest, though quietest, faults in Southern California.

It is estimated that the fault is capable of unleashing a quake with a magnitude of 6.5 to 7.5 on the Richter scale. The fault's last major quake was a 6.0 shaker in 1910 that was centered just northwest of the city of Lake Elsinore.

The predicted interval between major ruptures on the fault is 250 years.

The fault roughly runs from El Centro to the Chino Hills. It is blamed for, or credited with, creating Lake Elsinore, the Temecula Valley and Wolf Valley. The tallest building in the region, the Pechanga Resort & Casino, anchors the heart of Wolf Valley.

Vail Lake could inundate much of the Temecula and Wolf valleys if the dam were to crack, crumble or collapse.

The recent history of the entire region is intertwined with the ranch, the lake and the dam. The creation of Interstate 15 fueled the 1960s sale of the ranch and the subsequent creation of the planned communities that became Temecula, Murrieta and French Valley.

In 1978, Rancho acquired the dam and the permanent rights to the water stored behind it. Rancho uses the dam to capture runoff and release flows into a valley basin below for percolation into groundwater supplies. Up to 40% of the district's water has historically come from its vast underground supplies.

The district was interested in buying the land around the lake for decades. But a prominent developer and his partners moved first and snatched up a lakeside resort and much of the land around it in late 1997.

At the time of the developer's purchase, the property included a shuttered recreational vehicle park. The deal included a campground and a resort-style complex that dates back to the 1960s and included pools, miniature golf and food concessions.

The developer's partnership also owned recreation rights to the lake, and fishing and camping memberships were sold. Numerous small- and large-scale community and commercial events, many with sports themes, were held at a Vail Lake amphitheater and the surrounding grounds.

For decades, the area has been a magnet for campers, mountain bikers, boaters, anglers, hikers and equestrians. Popular trails crisscross the property, and trophy-size fish have been pulled from the depths of the lake.

The developer's long-term vision, which was unveiled in late 2000, called for the construction of 5,172 homes, three golf courses, a yacht club, five wineries, stores and an executive retreat.

But that development plan fizzled, in part because of the presence of nearly 40 endangered or sensitive plants and animals that include the bald eagle, golden eagle and great blue heron.

The property spiraled into bankruptcy and Rancho emerged as the owner.

The district spent $49.6 million nearly a decade ago to buy 7,904 acres that encircle the reservoir and regional recreation magnet.

Rancho's main goal is to protect the supply and quality of the water in the lake.

Rancho also plans to keep the area open to recreational uses, according to Wiley and district documents. District officials expect to spend $250,000 in the coming fiscal year to plan the future of the open space areas outside the existing RV campgrounds.

The district could recoup some of Vail's purchase price by offering parts of the land to development firms that need to purchase mitigation credits.

Many cities and counties will allow developers to build on environmentally-sensitive sites if they agree to purchase, protect and maintain sensitive habitat elsewhere. Certain parcels of mitigation land can be worth $20,000 or more per acre depending on the number of threatened or endangered species that a site protects.

Meanwhile, Vail's surface is still these days, silenced by a low water level that has blocked all boat access.

All we can do, it seems, is watch and wait.


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