By Barbara Zaragoza / South Bay Compass
Editor Note: The ongoing drought conditions in the region have impacted the availability of our water resources. The Sweetwater Reservoir is one of those resources.
While some may claim that the South Bay is filled with concrete and suburban McHomes, city planners have done much to preserve our green spaces. The Sweetwater Summit Campground is a wonderful little example.
You might consider it lackluster IF you are looking for “Disneyland” entertainment, but this low-key regional park hosts a playground with water works, 500-acres of trails and roaming animals that include the southern pacific rattlesnake, the coyote and the bobcat.
Other fun critters are the roadrunner, the red-tailed hawk, the western toad, the western tiger swallowtail, the red bush monkey-flower, the black tailed jack rabbit, the California gnatcatcher, the horned lark, the California brown pelican, and the mountain lion.
You can also enjoy the campground or drive into the reservoir where you can hike, bike or fish.
Who Owns It?
Sweetwater Authority maintains the Sweetwater Reservoir, which provides drinking-water storage for more than 186,000 residents of Chula Vista, National City and Bonita. It’s a terminal drinking water reservoir, so the water is stored in the reservoir and then pumped directly into Sweetwater Authority’s water treatment plant.
San Diego imports 85% of its water and the technologies required for our water delivery systems have altered the environment. The Sweetwater Authority has made sure to create a plant and animal habitat surrounding the reservoir in an effort to balance human needs with environmental preservation. That’s why you’ll find the low-key entertainments mentioned above.
History of the Reservoir
Frank Kimball, who came from New Hampshire with his brothers and bought Rancho de la Nacion (today’s National City), was determined to create the Sweetwater dam. Kimball wanted to plant citrus trees in the region, but he didn’t have a reliable source of irrigation. He himself found the Sweetwater gorge, located eight miles inland from San Diego Bay. He knew t it would make a fine place for a dam and a reservoir, but at first, he couldn’t find investors.
In 1886, the Land and Town Company agreed to build the dam, which was completed two years later. The dam was 90 feet high, the highest in the United States at the time. The thickness varied from 46 to 12 feet. The dam was 396 feet in length across the top. It was constructed of dark blue meta-volcanic rock quarried less than a quarter of a mile downstream from the site and moved to the site in wagons pulled by horses and mules.
Once the dam was working, large scale production of citrus fruits became possible. The dam was so popular that the National City & Otay Railroad established weekend excursion trips.
Hatfield, the Rainmaker
A famous story about the Sweetwater Dam occurred in 1916. A four year drought had plagued San Diego and the city’s reservoirs were dangerously low. The San Diego City Council received a recommendation to employ Charles M. Hatfield to produce rain. He came highly regarded as the man who had successfully been creating rain for Los Angeles and the Central Valley since 1904. While some city council members called the claim rubbish, the majority voted to pay Hatfield $10,000 if he produced rain and filled up the Morena Reservoir.
In January 1916 San Diego experienced the most devastating flood in its history. Some claimed, including Hatfield himself, that he had successfully created water, per his contract.
The flood destroyed entire communities, washed out the railroad and killed about 15-20 people, among other devastating effects. On January 20 the Sweetwater Reservoir filled to overflowing. Water went over the top of the Sweetwater Dam more than three and a half feet deep and the north abutment wing dam washed away, leaving a gap ninety feet wide.
Nevertheless, on February 5, 1916 Hatfield went to the city attorney’s office asking to collect the $10,000 that was due him for producing rain. When the city failed to pay, Hatfield filed a suit. The lawsuit remained in court files until 1938, when it was finally dismissed.
There are many other historical tidbits about this reservoir, including the lawsuit brought by a neighbor of the Sweetwater Dam … deliberately AFTER the dam was finished, so that he could claim the dam was built on his property and demand an exorbitant price for the acreage. There is also the record of festivities that took place once the dam was built. Finally, there is the story of discrimination against the Chinese workers who helped build the dam. These tidbits can be read in San Diego Land & Town Company 1880-1927 by Irene Phillips (National City, CA: South Bay Press, 1959).
Today, shoreline fishing is available at the reservoir. Also, on the way, make sure to stop at the boarded up house that once was likely the home of the reservoir caretaker.
Hours: 9:30am to Sunset daily.
Contact: The Authority’s field biologist can be reached at 619-420-1413