Norberto Santana, Jr.

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They say political squabbling killed fishing at Irvine Lake.

Today, a different sort of squabble – the upcoming 2020 election calendar – seems to have helped bring it back to life.

It’s quite the catch for Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, who earlier this year re-started long-stalled negotiations between the County of Orange, Serrano Water District and the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) to allow fishing at the lake.

There’s nothing sweeter for a politician than an opportunity to hand over huge bass, catfish and trout to constituents for free, right in front of an election.

The lake – originally called Santiago Reservoir – has been around since the 1928, when the nearby Santiago Dam was created to provide irrigation water for farmers.

Fishing was introduced in the 1940s but over time, the lake developed into a key watershed storage reservoir for three nearby large  creeks, Black Star Creek, Santiago Creek and Silverado Creek.

The two water districts own the lake together. IRWD owns 75 percent of the water rights with Serrano owning the remaining 25 percent.

Separate from the water rights, there are also recreation rights to the surface of the water.

The Irvine Company currently owns 75 percent of the recreation rights with Serrano owning the remaining 25 percent. Prior to 2016, Serrano used to operate fishing and boating on the lake and in connection with that arrangement, the water district leased rights to a 29-acre lake-frontage parcel owned by the Irvine Company, which allowed them to generate revenue through activities like RV Storage.

The County of Orange, now owns the 29-acre frontage parcel, as it was recently donated by the Irvine Company.

Irvine Lake over the years also became a prime spot for Orange County anglers, producing great bass, catfish and trout fishing.

Yet a series of boating deaths caused insurance rates to skyrocket. Later, when the Irvine Company gifted 2,500 acres of wilderness areas near Orange to the county government in 2014, it created a complication about what to do with the 29 acres with frontage to the lake, which also included a bait and tackle shop and the RV storage facility.

The minority partner, Serrano, demanded significant revenues from any future recreational arrangement to keep water rates low for its customers. Given that county officials didn’t own the recreational rights at the time (those then belonged to the Irvine Company), a stalemate ensured.

Public access to the lake eventually closed in July 2016.

Irvine Lake entrance through the East Santiago Road Canyon entrance.

Given that both water districts primarily view Irvine Lake as a water reservoir, those officials aren’t particularly invested in recreational fishing.

Former Supervisor Todd Spitzer worked to get the three sides together but was unable to get to the right mix of county subsidy or solve the jurisdictional issues in time to get a deal before he left office.

Spitzer handed the issue over to Wagner when he became District Attorney in January.

Earlier this year, Orange County grand jurors did a solid job of delving into the bureaucratic issues at the lake criticizing officials at all three agencies for not solving their dispute and restoring public access to Irvine Lake.

By May, Wagner gathered the agencies together at the county Hall of Administration, leading efforts to craft a deal.

According to those at the May meeting, Wagner effectively got officials to let go of the past and focused instead on moving forward with a good mix of listening and offering solutions – along with money.

Don Wagner along the Irvine Lake reservoir.

“Folks hadn’t talked for a long time,” said Wagner this past week while walking the area. “This is a great resource. It seemed to me whatever the hold up was there would be a way to get through it.”

Wagner thought given his background as a business attorney, he could help craft a deal.

He did.

With some key help from Orange County taxpayers…

The deal ended up with the County of Orange providing $4,500 a month to Serrano Water District – along with a sharing plan for revenues from the bait and tackle operations and a $426,120 sole source contract for the current RV storage operator – James Productions Inc. – to clean up the area and manage operations for one year.

It seems the IRWD mainly sought liability protections against accidents and leaders there are interested in a planning relationship over the land that respects the lake’s primary position as watershed storage, not as a recreational resource.

“We have zero interest in fishing,” said IRWD General Manager Paul Cook.

Cook warns that public access to the Lake also could be impacted in the next several years as the water districts often times drain lake levels down as demand requires. Water district officials also have to replace the main outlet in the middle of the lake (which hasn’t been replaced since 1928) and that could also require draining the lake.

Despite the challenges, Wagner said he focused on incremental progress, focusing efforts on a one-year deal that gets Irvine Lake open again.

By early June, Wagner got his board of supervisors’ colleagues to approve acceptance of the Irvine Company donation of a 29-acre parcel at the entrance to the lake along with recreational rights — the transfer stalled by years of failed negotiations.

That opened up the possibility for Wagner to then secure an operations deal, which he did later that month, winning another unanimous vote from his colleagues on the Republican-dominated board of supervisors for a one-year deal to get fishing going at the lake.

It’s one of those rare chances in politics to actually accomplish something that provides a visual benefit to the public.

“The role of a county supervisor is to enhance quality of life for everyone,” Wagner notes.

Getting anglers back on Irvine Lake will also provide a golden, taxpayer-funded, ribbon cutting opportunity that the Wagner campaign will surely cherish, polish and rollout for next year’s election.

On the morning of Aug. 17, local anglers will get their first shot at the once-popular local fishing lake, which was last stocked back in 2016 and hasn’t been touched by recreational fishing since.

Given that in theory no one has fished there in three years, we may see some record catches for local bass or catfish.

“People should have access to this,” said Wagner while touring maintenance work at the Lake last week. “Their tax dollars created this.”

While there is no doubt that Orange County anglers will be happy, there are still questions facing taxpayers.

Paying a sole-source vendor nearly half-a-million dollars annually to manage a bait and tackle shop along with limited shoreline fishing seems expensive.

And how long does the Serrano Water District, which as a 25 percent owner was able to hold up any county plans on the lake for years, continue getting paid?

Future money to pay for improvements and fish stocking at Irvine Lake also will likely come from the OC Parks budget, raising the question of how that impacts other park priorities.

Most importantly, as Orange County grand jurors suggested, county leaders need to sit down with all stakeholders and craft an effective master plan for the area.

Keep in mind that the drought significantly affected the imprint of Irvine Lake in recent years. And with IRWD also draining the lake occasionally – as opposed to losing the water to evaporation – it may keep recreational activities like fishing limited.

Irvine Lake sits on the east side of Irvine, California. It is a reservoir with a natural territory wildlife. Currently bodily contact or entry is strictly prohibited.

And again, in a few years the lake has to get a new outlet drain, which means it could have to be drained for that work to occur.

Thus, boat fishing will likely be challenging to see come back, unless the County of Orange wants to pay IRWD to keep the lake extra full instead of losing the extra water to evaporation. And then, there’s also the spike in insurance costs, dock restructuring and potential future state regulations that could impact the introduction of boating.

All of those challenges can be addressed in a good master planning process.

Good relationships come from good contracts.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Serrano Water District owns 25 percent of a 29-acre lake frontage parcel at Irvine Lake. We regret the error.

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