Although meetup.com was launced in 2002, I didn’t discover it until 2007 when the Great Recession caused me to go on staycations and start exploring the nooks and crannies of San Diego County.
Right now I am a member of 27 Meetup groups. The most active ones are my favorite, like the Pacific Photographic Society and The San Diego Photography Collective.
If you think you know everything about your local neighborhoods, join a meetup.com group and you’ll find that there’s always someone who knows more than you.
Yesterday I headed 57 miles into the boondocks with some members of The San Diego Photography Collective meetup.com group to visit the Sutherland Dam and Reservoir. Coolest dam ever. Looks like this (click on panorama pictures to get a bigger picture in a new window/tab):
If you take the easy way to Sutherland Dam & Reservoir using State Highways 78 or 67 to Sutherland Dam Road, you’ll go through Ramona, a well-known equestrian community. There you can see horseys out to pasture:
Although Sutherland Dam & Reservoir is owned by the City of San Diego, the Ramona Municipal Water District also has access to the water.
The dam and reservoir are named after John P. Sutherland, a Ramona pioneer, real estate developer, and rancher. According to local author Darrell Beck in his book, On Memory’s Back Trail, “A civil engineer named Post who was surveying the dam site and who was drenched in a rainstorm, stopped at Sutherland’s office to record some papers. Sutherland built a fire and gave Post some dry clothes while Post was waiting. As a result, the grateful surveyor said he would never forget this as Sutherland refused to take any pay for helping him. Thus, when the map was filed for record, Post had the title read, ‘Survey of Sutherland Dam Site,’ as a tribute to Sutherland’s kind deed.”
Construction began in 1927 but the dam wasn’t finished until 1954.
In actuality, the dam only took three years to build. Construction had been halted in 1928 due to lack of funds and a disagreement over water rights. Escondido wanted to claim water rights because the natural course of the water would be flowing west and out to the ocean, not south to Ramona and San Diego, the two cities which currently have water rights.
Money probably was the bigger issue, though, and in 1952 voters approved a $6.5 million bond for construction costs to finish the dam: $3 million for the dam, $1.75 for the tunnel, $250,000 for engineering and miscellaneous costs, and $1.5 million for right-of-way costs. I have no idea where the tunnel is; more research is in order.
The dam was about one-fourth complete when work stopped in 1928. When construction started again in 1952, work picked up where it left off. Concrete had been poured for 9 of the 17 arches and most of the wooden framing was still in place. According to a 1954 newspaper article, “The previously built buttresses were still covered with the old wooden frames. When the workers began removing these, thousands of bats flew out to the amazement of everyone.”
When the second phase of construction began in 1952, pipelines were added to the plans to direct the water flow through Ramona to San Vicente Reservoir in Lakeside and on to Lake Murray.
More than 3oo dignitaries and spectators attended the dedication ceremony and luncheon hosted by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce on June 5, 1954.
The curved arches are called semi-ecological arches. I could find nothing anywhere about semi-ecological (or ecological) arches, and yet here we have 17 of them between 18 buttresses. Sutherland Dam was the last of the multiple-arched dams built in the county.
Back side of a semi-ecological arch at Sutherland Dam
I did, however, find information about arch dams. According to Wikipedia, arch dams are designed so that the force of the water against them, the hydrostatic pressure, presses against the arch, compressing and strengthening the structure as it pushes into its foundation and abutments. Arch dams are great for narrow gorges and canyons with steep walls. They typically are thinner than other dam types, thus requiring much less construction material, making them economical and practical in remote areas. So maybe less construction material means a lesser impact on the ecology.
I think we’re there!
Arch dams have a long history, with the first known arch dam being built by the Romans in France in the first century B.C. The latest was built in 2013 in China.
The Sutherland Dam is 161 feet high and 1,240 feet wide, including the spillway. Concrete at the base is ten feet thick, tapering to just forty inches at the top. A walkway across the top of the dam follows the contour of the semi-ecological arches, but it’s not accessible to the public. Ha!
The spillway keeps the water level below 145 feet (2,058 feet above sea level), a level that has only been reached twice, once in the late 1970s and again in the 1990s (haven’t found out the exact years…. yet). During the worst of the recent drought years, Sutherland Reservoir was so low that even after all the rain we have had during the past five months, the reservoir still is only at 7.3 percent of its 29,508 acre-feet capacity.
According to a former reservoir keeper at the dam, there are a few cracks in it but they are considered safe. I’m not sure I would rely on a former reservoir keeper because when I was there on April 15, 2017, there were more than “a few cracks.” And there were leaks everywhere. Big leaks, too. YUGE leaks, as Twitler might say.
Sutherland Dam is said to be one of the most earthquake-proof dams in Southern California. Judging from all the leaks I saw, if we have a major earthquake anywhere close to this dam, I think it’s going down.
Since the back of the dam is completely shaded, there is a significant growth of ferns, lichen, and poison ivy.
The Sutherland Dam & Reservoir is on the Santa Ysabel Creek in the Palomar Mountains in the Cleveland National Forest, and is part of the San Dieguito River Park which stretches from its headwaters at Santa Ysabel all the way to the Pacific Ocean, a distance of about 25 miles.
Recreational activities in the area including boating, fishing, and hunting. Turkey season is in full swing right now, and I met a couple of bow hunters out looking for turkeys. Turkey numbers are said to be very high, and authorities are begging for turkey hunters to help out.
Although the area was significantly impacted by the 2007 Witch Creek fire, Mother & Father Nature have returned with a vengeance.
There are quite a few ruins throughout the area but I have not yet found any information about them.
The fireplace and chimney standing all alone, with no evidence of a house foundation or walls, really has my interested piqued.
There also are rumors that a garnet mine is out there somewhere, as well as an Iipay Indian village. Some thinking is that both are under water now.
Since you already saw horseys out to pasture on your way in, I can highly recommend taking the back way out. Keep following Sutherland Dam Road, which will follow Santa Ysabel Creek. It’s a crappy road but worth going slowly and looking at the scenery. In the following picture you can see a fire trail climbing the mountain somewhat horizontally, and oaks growing in either a creek bed fed by rains or possibly even a natural spring that feeds into Santa Ysabel Creek. This is Cleveland National Forest, a typical Southern California riparian habitat but not what you’re used to seeing when someone says forest.
You’ll get down to the intersection with Black Canyon Road where you can see the historic Black Canyon Road Bridge built in 1913. It was one of 18 three-hinged arch bridges built by Thomas & Post between 1909 and 1917. It uses the Thomas method of precast, reinforced concrete sections, which allows movement in two opposite directions using two hinges at the base and one at midspan, a design that compensated for thermal and seismic expansion and contraction.
If you go right on Black Canyon Road, you’ll eventually reach part of the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation. You’ll have to turn right on Mesa Grande Road and go down to State Highway 79 to get anywhere.
Turning left on Black Canyon Road will take you back to Ramona and State Highway 78.
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