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Lake Cahuilla recreation could be in jeopardy as county lease nears end

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Lake Cahuilla is a popular area for fishing and recreation use by residents of the Coachella Valley and outside visitors, but now that could be in jeopardy as Riverside County's lease nears its end.

"This is a gem. It's nice to have a natural water source here in the desert other than pools and it's a very quiet, very peaceful place," Ventura County resident, Catherine Schurman said.

"I think it’s something where people can relax and take a breath," Ventura County resident, Diane Markus said.

Both Schurman and Markus visited the lake for the first time on Monday by taking a bike ride through the area. The lake has become a prime location for people wanting to get outdoors and have fun.

"We understand what an amenity it has not only for our residents, but the valley residents. It has a key element in the triathlons that take place in the desert, which there are 3," said La Quinta Mayor Linda Evans.

Mayor Evans has been in contact with Desert Valley Outdoors, a nonprofit recreation group based out of the Coachella Valley. The group has rallied behind the effort to keep the lake open to the public. That's because the county's lease will be up in less than 6 months. Riverside County released a statement to News Channel 3:

The county has leased Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park since 1971 and has operated the lake as a campground and recreational park during that time. The lease is set to expire in March 2021. The county desires the park to remain open to the public past March and is exploring ways to keep it open.

It's still unclear how the county intends to keep it open.

A Desert Valley Outdoors organizer sent News Channel 3 the photo below and said it's possible that the lake could become gated off in the coming months.

Courtesy: Julian Rangel

"We were aware that the county was not going to renew their lease with Coachella Valley Water District, who operate Lake Cahuilla," said Desert Recreation District General Manager, Kevin Kalman.

The district is now considering whether it will step in if the county does not renew its lease.

"We’re doing our due diligence to find out what the potential risks are for the district and over the long term with assuming the park," said Kalman.

Kalman said one of their biggest concerns is being able to mitigate invasive species which could potentially lead to costly damages.

"There’s some concern with regard to invasive species and how that limits the programmability of the property. When I say invasive species I’m talking about the Quagga and Zebra Mussels, which we know have been brought to the west coast from the midwest in the late 80s and are throughout the Colorado River System, which Lake Cahuilla is fed from," said Kalman.

Aside from recreation, Lake Cahuilla plays an integral role in the Coachella Valley Water District's system.

"Our agricultural distribution system ends at Lake Cahuilla, and lake Cahuilla is a reservoir for that system. It’s very important that we’re able to operate it and operate it well," said Katie Evans, Director of Communications and Conservation at Coachella Valley Water District.

The district operates the lake, which is owned by the United States Bureau of Reclamation.

"We have to ensure that the water in that reservoir is of the quality that we need. We have to protect it from invasive species and any liability that’s recreational would have to be incurred by whatever entity is running the recreational component of it," said Evans.

Evans said the water district is willing to work with the county or whatever entity opts to take it over.

If the county does not renew its lease, DRD has begun evaluating the risk.

"The invasive species is not something that one can insure for. It’s basically an uninsurable risk. In this particular case it’s not the drinking water that it’s affecting, but you have the entire downstream infrastructure from CVWD which feeds the agricultural community in the east valley. Potential risk is not just replacing water lines, but also potential crop loss and the ripple effect of having that water shut off for any other period of time," said Kalman.

The future of the lake will likely be decided in the next 5 months.

"We have to just find a balance of how to respect and understand the importance of what the water district’s role is in maintaining the quality of water in that lake and throughout the canal system, but also find that balance for recreation so that people can enjoy it," said Mayor Evans.

Desert Valley Outdoors Administrator Brad Schwilk also released a statement:

Desert Valley Outdoors was founded in 2017. We are a nonprofit organization. We work within the community to provide learning clinics to the youth and families about fishing, hunting and many other outdoor activities. We focus on safety and getting the family out to have fun. The community, including the members of Desert Valley Outdoors, will be affected by the closing of Lake Cahuilla. This closure will take away a recreation area that has been a staple to the local community since it was built many years ago. Desert Valley Outdoors will work with whoever resumes management of the lake to provide a safe family environment to our Coachella Valley residents and visitors.

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Shelby Nelson

Shelby Nelson is a News Reporter for KESQ News Channel 3. She joined our team in September 2019 after living in San Francisco for 6 years. Learn more about Shelby here.

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