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Corps updates citizens, officials after first year of Lake Elsinore ecosystem restoration study

USACE SPD Los Angeles District
Published June 3, 2022
Updated: June 3, 2022
A view of Lake Elsinore taken during the feasibility study shows the green lake water caused by algae.

A view of Lake Elsinore taken during the feasibility study shows the green lake water caused by algae. Photo by Daria Mazey, South Pacific Division, US Army Corps of Engineers.

LOS ANGELES—The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District hosted a virtual public meeting May 24 for partners, stakeholders and private citizens about the Lake Elsinore Continuing Authority Program 206 Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study.

The purpose of the meeting was to update all interested parties about the feasibility study that began a year ago on how to restore Lake Elsinore’s wetland ecosystem and heal the lake of invasive plant species and abate algae.

“In a city like Lake Elsinore, the lake is central to the identity of the town, and a cultural and recreational hub,” said Daria Mazey, Corps plan formulation specialist, South Pacific Division Regional Continuing Authority Program, or CAP, Center. “It’s important to engage with residents and business owners to find out what they care about and what they think of our ideas, so that we can refine them with this input.”

Riverside County, the City of Lake Elsinore and the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District partnered with the Corps to address the lake’s issues. Mazey began by explaining how CAP works, how a project goes through its approval process and when—or when not—it must return to Congress for further consideration. The Lake Elsinore project will use CAP Section 206.

Lake Elsinore has a lot of ecological challenges, but also a ton of opportunity to improve the ecosystem health and enhance an already great recreational experience, Mazey said, adding that getting community input on this from the real experts, who live it every day, is an important part of the Corps’ process. She provided a detailed, science-based presentation about what the Corps learned in the past year, how the Corps conducts a feasibility study and how Section 206  “is a standing construction authority which allows us to partner with locals on aquatic ecosystem restoration that is less complex than our larger studies. 

“The cool thing about CAP is that the process is simplified, cutting red tape and facilitating more efficient delivery on projects that improve aquatic ecosystems. As long as we stay within our cost limit of $10 million federal funding and show that we have a good feasible recommendation, we don’t need to go back to Congress for authority and money to construct,” Mazey explained. “We can also spend up to 10 percent of the budget on recreation improvements, which is great in a place like Lake Elsinore.”

Mazey detailed how a wetland ecosystem could improve the lake’s water quality and offered multiple alternative project ideas weighing the costs and benefits using an interactive screen for meeting participants to gauge their interest and affiliation with the lake community. Participants also engaged directly in the virtual room or shared their concerns using the chat. Questions posed by participants, such as legal issues or how local residents can help, were answered on the spot. If a particular question needed additional information, contact information was collected for follow-up after the meeting.

Citizens expressed their willingness to assist the Corps, and Mazey said there are many things that individuals can do that can help improve water quality and habitat, especially if done consistently over time.

“If you have a yard or garden, don’t over-fertilize. Most folks use up to three times the amount of fertilizer required, and the plants can’t uptake it, so it dissolves in water and runs off into the lake and fertilizes the algae instead,” Mazey said. “Cut your grass no shorter than three inches, which helps slow and sink runoff water and helps keep polluted runoff out of the lake. Plant drought-tolerant native grasses or shrubs as buffers if you really want to support local ecology.”

Those plants will draw native pollinator species and birds, Mazey said.

Another suggestion was converting septic systems to using sewer lines. Septic tanks tend to leak over time and the contents add nutrients, such as fertilizer to groundwater, that can feed the lake.

“And you guessed it, (it) fertilizes algae,” Mazey concluded. “If you want to help remove invasives, consider joining a volunteer group that pulls invasive species up. If one doesn’t exist, maybe help form one – could be a cool school project.”

With a 782-square-mile watershed, Lake Elsinore is California’s biggest natural freshwater lake. Located in Riverside County at the terminus of the San Jacinto River in the Santa Ana Mountains, the lake was home to Native American tribes when Spanish explorers arrived in 1797. The lake is a popular Southern California destination that had a Union Army horse-watering outpost in 1862 and was used in the 1920s for Olympic training and speedboat races.