By Andie King

A long-time mecca for fishermen and families seeking outdoor activities, Irvine Lake has been ravaged by drought and insurance woes that resulted in boats being prohibited. And now, ownership of its recreational rights have dealt yet another blow.  According to Irvine Lake Contract CEO David Noyes, fishing may cease as early as Feb. 28.

Serrano Water District (SWD) owns 25 percent of the recreational rights at Irvine Lake, which include the boating, camping and fishing amenities. It has operated those concessions at the lake under a wholly-owned subsidiary called SWD Recreation, Inc.  The Irvine Company owned the other 75 percent of those lake rights until it transferred them to Orange County, along with 2,500 adjacent acres stretching from Orange to Anaheim Hills in 2014.

The County advised SWD that its recreational rights, i.e., lake fishing, would be terminated as of March 31.

Bait and switch

The County and SWD are now involved in negotiations over who will have what in terms of the land surrounding the lake. In a letter dated Oct. 22, 2015, Serrano stated its preference to share recreation rights at Irvine Lake. However, understanding that to be an unlikely outcome, the SWD board proposed that, in consideration of its 25 percent interest in the recreation rights, it continue to operate the recreational vehicle and boat storage concessions for a  specific  (unnamed)  time  period, after which the water district would continue to receive a portion of that annual income from the county.

The County wants Serrano’s 25 percent share of the lake rights, and counter-proposed that it would take over all recreational activities at the lake, including fishing, boating and camping, but concede the RV and boat storage to SWD for two years. At the end of that time, Serrano would then pay market rent for the property -- if the board of supervisors agreed to continue the lease.

To further muddy the legal waters, the lake itself is owned jointly by Serrano Water District and Irvine Ranch Water District. The water rights will not, at this time, be affected.

Hook, line and sinking

Activity at the 750-acre lake, regularly  stocked  with  fish,  has been scaled back since boating was banned after two people who deigned not to wear lifejackets drowned. But anglers continued to  hook  catfish,  trout  and  bass from the shore, and fishing tournaments were regular events. Youngsters often caught their very first fish at the popular Kids Lagoon, and legions of scouts camped on the shore. The lake was the centerpiece for the annual Villa Park Family Picnic, and the site of numerous reunions, music festivals and family outings.

A county spokesperson reports that under the proposed agreement, “the County would take over all recreation opportunities on Irvine Lake, including fishing, with the intent to enhance and expand them for boaters and other users.”  Negotiations, however, are ongoing and it is not clear when the county would resume recreational activities.

Today, the former lake staff of 27 has been cut to six. The annual $210,000 lease revenue paid to SWD from its recreation entity was used to offset Serrano’s water rates. It remains to be seen how that revenue loss will impact SWD’s bottom line. 

Irvine Lake will be closed during conversion to county ownership

Recreational activities at drought-striken Irvine Lake will fall under the auspices of Orange County Parks.