Rarely seen spill could be coming to Lake Hodges dam

The unusually wet winter now hitting San Diego County and California could bring a sight that’s been witnessed only twice in the past 13 years - water cascading over the Lake Hodges dam.

“If the weather pattern we have continues through February, in all likelihood Lake Hodges will fill and spill this spring,” said Mike Bardin, general manager of the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which supplies water to Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch.

As of Jan. 9, Hodges stood at 41.9 percent of its capacity of 30,632 acre-feet (an acre-foot is equal to 325,000 gallons). That total did not include rainfall from the most recent series of storms that hit San Diego County beginning on Thursday, Jan. 19.

According to Bardin, the major significant spill at Lake Hodges occurred in 2004, although a smaller spill took place in 2011.

Such spillovers became rare in recent years during the California drought, when the water level at Hodges dropped dramatically.

This year, precipitation totals both locally and in Northern California, where a significant snowpack means increased water supplies for the state, are above normal. Precipitation is also up in the Colorado River Basin, which along with Northern California is a major water source for Southern California.

“Both major imported supply sources are looking great,” Bardin told the Santa Fe Irrigation District Board of Directors at its Thursday, Jan. 19, meeting.

Since Santa Fe owns a share of the water captured in Lake Hodges, local rainfall means a greater supply of cheaper, local water for the district and its customers. In recent years, the supply of local water has been limited.

Bardin told the board that if Hodges spills over this spring, Santa Fe would look to sell the excess water to the San Diego County Water Authority. In the past, such an option was not available because Lake Hodges was a stand-alone reservoir. But in the early 2000s, Hodges was hooked up to the San Diego County water aqueduct, Bardin said.

Bardin said he and his staff are negotiating with the County Water Authority on a price for Santa Fe’s excess water if the Hodges dam does spill over. That agreement could come back to the board for consideration at an upcoming meeting.

“There’s a potential we can make money if Hodges spills over,” he said.

But he cautioned the board there are potential hurdles to such a deal, he said. For one thing, the water quality at Hodges differs from that in the aqueduct, and that difference would have to be dealt with. Also, he said, the aqueduct’s normal flow would have to be shut down to accommodate the transfer. Another factor is the water authority must have capacity in its reservoir system to store the overflow water it purchases.

“Moving water out of the lake is going to be extremely difficult,” he said.

But the district is working with the water authority to finalize a deal so that such a sale could possibly go forward when and if the dam spills over. The alternative is that the spilled water would simply be wasted, flowing into San Dieguito Creek, which was dammed in 1918 to create the reservoir.

According to the National Weather Service office in San Diego, as of Saturday, Jan. 21, Lindbergh Field had recorded 7.29 inches of rain since Oct. 1, when the current rainfall season began. That is 163 percent of the historic average rainfall for that period of time. Ramona Airport had recorded 11.95 inches, or 179 percent of normal for the period.