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State closures leave TID looking at options to keep Turlock Lake open

POSTED February 14, 2012 8:14 p.m.

Since moving to Turlock in 2002 the Turlock Lake State Recreation Area has become Nancy Jewett's home away from home, offering swimming in the summer, hiking in the winter, and a verdant natural landscape year-round.

But Jewett's days of visiting Turlock Lake may be near an end, as the State of California is set to cease operations at the state park on July 1 in a cost-saving maneuver.

“The entire recreation area I've depended on for the last 12 years is about to be wiped out,” Jewett said. “I can't tell you the impact that has on my quality of life.”

The Turlock Lake SRA is home to a 66-site campground, a day-use area with a sandy swimming beach, hiking trails, a boat launch, and some on-site administrative buildings. Though the Turlock Irrigation District owns the reservoir, since 1950 it has leased the on-site recreation facilities to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

But now, with $22 million in budget reductions planned for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, California State Parks expects to close up to 70 of its 279 state parks – including Turlock Lake and the nearby McConnell and George J. Hatfield state recreation areas.

The state's departure has left TID scrambling to determine if – and how – it will keep Turlock Lake open.

“With the state leaving, TID has some decisions to make as far as what transpires with the recreational area,” said Carol Russell, director of the Don Pedro Recreation Agency.

Turlock Lake could close to visitors, as the district has no legal obligation to open the reservoir to recreation. But closing the facility would cost $345,000 in the first year – $260,000 of that paying for security fencing – and more than $80,000 each year thereafter to pay for basic maintenance and security staffing.

Closing the state park would also represent a “great loss to the public,” Russell said, and would eliminate the only public campground and only state park along the lower Tuolumne River – not to mention the only boat launch between Le Grange and Waterford.

The district could instead assume operations of the recreation area, but that would cost TID more than $170,000 annually. The large annual cost comes as gate revenues from the 79,000 yearly visitors fail to meet ongoing operation and maintenance expenses.

That annual cost would be in addition to an estimated $278,000 in start-up costs, needed to replace the benches, food lockers, signs, and maintenance equipment which the state will likely take when it closes the park. A further $375,000 in near-term capital costs – like replacing roofs – will also be needed.

Alternatively, TID could opt to subsidize the state parks' continued operation of the facility. That option would cost between $160,000 and $180,000 annually – less than 25 cents per TID customer per year – but would likely still see reductions in service, with the park closed many winter days.

Those cost estimates for California State Parks to continue running Turlock Lake are rough, parks employees said. But all the options on the table are likely more expensive than what TID is willing or able to commit.

“This board isn't keen on closing the park,” said TID Board of Directors Chairman Micheal Frantz. “(... But) this district doesn't have funds to expend in this time of economic duress.”

Frantz suggested volunteers may be able to help out in some areas. Allowing alcohol at Turlock Lake might also increase attendance – and gate revenues.

TID might also partner with Stanislaus County to keep the reservoir open. The county, which currently operates Modesto Reservoir and Woodward Reservoir at a profit, is interested in “looking at it,” TID staff said.

Or the district could find some other partner through a request for proposal process, either who would run Turlock Lake for-profit or in hopes of preserving the natural resource.

Though the planned closure date is just 137 days away, the district is hesitant to make any big moves yet. Though Turlock Lake SRA is on the California State Parks' official list of planned closures, TID has not received any formal notification the area will close.

“We're not going to organize any bake sales in the parking lot until we understand what is going on here,” said Bob Nees, assistant TID general manager of Water Resources and Regulatory Affairs.

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