Lake Merced is a recreational and natural wonder in the southwest corner of San Francisco. Rowers, dragon boat racers, golfers, birdwatchers, and runners flock to the area. The lake provides habitat for wildlife. But above all else, Lake Merced is San Francisco’s emergency non-drinking water supply.
The problem is that there’s no single agency in charge of this unique lake. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission owns the lake and the land around it. While the PUC is responsible for maintaining water levels and water quality, the Recreation and Park Department manages recreational usage at the lake and maintains the natural areas around it.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the two Commissions that outlines each agency’s responsibilities for Lake Merced expires next week, on Sept. 30. So far, neither Commission has taken steps to write a new MOU. Many recreation advocates, concerned that Rec and Park has mismanaged the lake for decades, hope the PUC will take back sole control of Lake Merced. The problems started in 1950, when the PUC passed a resolution that gave Rec and Park the right to “occupy, use and improve” Lake Merced “for park and recreational purposes.” Rec and Park could also grant concessions and leases. However, the PUC retained control of the water. Thus began a co-management of the lake that, frankly, hasn’t worked.
Over the years, overpumping of water from the aquifer that feeds the lake caused water levels to drop dramatically. Docks, the boathouse, and other facilities fell into disrepair.
In 2010, the PUC published a “Lake Merced Watershed” report outlining a master plan for managing the lake. The report cost ratepayers $588,000. The agency gave it to Rec and Park, but that Department has largely ignored its recommendations. For example, the Watershed report identified the critical need for more boat storage space for the rowing clubs on the lake. Yet when Rec and Park renovated the boathouse in 2014, they created no additional storage. The renovation did, however, include a nice, large room that could be rented out for weddings or other events. To be fair, Rec and Park did add two workout rooms for the high school rowing teams. But the ventilation is inadequate, and the rooms get very hot when used, even with the doors wide open.
Apparently, recreation at Lake Merced is not a priority for Rec and Park. Youth dragon boat racers change clothes in their cars because they have no locker room. A fishing concessionaire that provided bait, tackle, and snacks left in 1999 and has not been replaced. The walking path around the lake has deteriorated. The excuse Rec and Park gives for why it has neglected the recreational infrastructure – especially boating and fishing facilities – is lack of money. Yet Rec and Park collects nearly $100,000 each year in rents and permit fees at Lake Merced. The PUC gives Rec and Park an additional $415,000 every year for basic maintenance at the lake. Advocates have tried – and failed – to get an accounting of how all that money has been spent.
The Department’s priority, instead, appears to be adding new native plants and restoring habitat, which has continued at a brisk pace, even as the docks and paths deteriorated.
In 2007, after an audit of the PUC, the Board of Supervisors suggested the agency take on more management responsibilities at Lake Merced. It took almost six years to iron out a MOU between the PUC and Rec and Park. Indeed, the PUC rejected two versions of MOUs prepared by Rec and Park because of concerns about scope and transparency. In the end, the now-expiring MOU largely continued the “two-headed” co-management monster that the Supervisors had criticized.
It’s time for the PUC to take over as sole manager of Lake Merced. It can contract with Rec and Park to manage the Harding Park golf course and maintain existing natural areas, if necessary. But it should hire an experienced concessionaire to manage boating, fishing, and other recreational activities at the lake. The PUC, as owner of Lake Merced, can find a better balance between recreation, habitat, and protecting our water supply than Rec and Park has. The Commission has ignored its responsibilities for far too long.