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Creating Lake Mission Viejo Was No Easy Task

Turning an arid canyon into a sparkling, blue lake required an effort worthy of Hercules.

The view from Alicia Parkway north, across Lake Mission Viejo to Saddleback Mountain’s twin peaks—Mount Santiago and Mount Modjeska—is as iconic to Mission Viejo as the pier is to San Clemente or the old mission bell tower is to San Juan Capistrano.

Lake Mission Viejo spans 124 acres, has an average depth of 35 feet, is 70 feet deep at its deepest point (near Alicia Parkway), and holds 1.2 billion gallons of water, making it one of the largest man-made recreational lakes in Southern California. It is also one of the few man-made lakes in the state that is clean enough for both fishing and swimming. Although the lake is now an unquestioned success, the story of its construction has elements of an epic struggle in which the Mission Viejo Co. had to accomplish four herculean feats.

Because lake construction cost around $10 million, the first feat was to find treasure. During the early 1970s, real estate prices in Southern California were going straight up, fueled in large measure by the booming aerospace and defense industry. Eyeing a possible 30 percent return on investment, the Philip Morris Co. bought the Mission Viejo Co. for $52 million in 1972. Under terms of the purchase agreement, the Mission Viejo Co. became a wholly owned subsidiary of Philip Morris but continued its role as Mission Viejo’s master builder.

The second feat was to overcome the fear of impending financial disaster. Although purchase by Philip Morris provided an infusion of capital, an old promotional video reveals that Mission Viejo Co. executives still viewed lake construction as extremely risky because it would require selling homes for as much as $60,000. To put that figure in perspective, the two-story, five-bedroom Spanish-style Casa Sarga—largest among the homes being built at that time in Mission Viejo’s New Madrid neighborhoods—was selling for around $50,000.  

The third feat was to tame the land. To create an enclosed bowl, an earthen dam nearly 130 feet high and almost a mile long was built along what would become the southern end of the lake. To prevent water in the lake from seeping out, the sandy topsoil was removed down to the clay bed and then replaced with a rocky layer. To divert runoff water into storm drains and prevent it from entering the lake, a 42-acre retention basin was built at the lake’s northern end, and an interconnected system of conduits and drains was created around its eastern perimeter. By 1976, the man-made hole was ready.

The fourth feat was to fill this vast hole with water. The original plan had been to purchase from the Santa Margarita Water District 3,800 acre-feet of potable water, which would come from Northern California via the California Aqueduct. But lack of rain and snow had made 1976 the driest year of the modern era. Because Northern California was especially hard hit, importing water from that area to fill a recreational oasis in Southern California became a public relations nightmare.

With the lake only one-third full, Mission Viejo Co. executives scrambled to find another source of water. Selling homes for $60,000 had not been a problem. In fact, the demand for homes in Mission Viejo was so great that the company held lotteries to determine who would have the opportunity to buy which one. But many of these eager buyers had been promised a lake front or, at least, a lake view. At first, the company brought water from the Colorado River. Later it dug wells, laid pipeline, and built pump stations to carry water 11 miles, from an underground basin at San Juan Creek to Lake Mission Viejo.

In 1978, two years after efforts began to fill the lake, this fourth feat finally was accomplished. With Lake Mission Viejo’s dedication in that year, the company enabled Mission Viejo residents to, as sailboat-filled billboards beckoned, “Live the California promise.”

Dan Avery June 05, 2011 at 04:05 PM
Those are the sorts of hurdles you'd expect a large civic project to encounter. Personally, I'm not a big fan of man-made lakes because I come from Minnesota where we are overly blessed with the real thing. But the lake is pretty to look at, and I do wish one could walk all the way around the shore of it like one can over in RSM. I'm glad for the community it was built because there are beaches that parents can take their children to. Most of my best memories are of summertime beaches at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Today, however, the opposition to the lake would be fierce and it'd be the same 23 people who oppose everything in town. It would still get built but it would simply costs a lot more because of those 23 people.
Robert Butchers June 05, 2011 at 05:47 PM
I too wish that we could walk, run, or jog around our beautiful lake. Since I am requiered to pay for the lake as a resident, I think that it would be much better to spend money on a walking path around the lake rather than spent so much on useless pilasters with ugly pictures, flower pots, flag standards, banners, strange mosaics, and all the useless overplanted expensive to maintain landscaping that does not enhanse our community. Of course, the poor civic planning allowed private shoreline property for the fortunate few and very little for the majority who fund the lake.
Love MV June 06, 2011 at 04:20 PM
I love all the things that have been done in and around our streets and I do walk/run around the Lake - thanks to visionary thinking by our civic leaders, we have a beautiful view of the lake from several points along the way. I appreciate everything Mission Viejo has to offer and that is why I CHOSE to live here. All of this helps ALL of our home values and our businesses. Wake up and smell the roses planted along the way for you - Mission Viejo is a place we can be proud of!
Julie Flores June 06, 2011 at 04:39 PM
I take your point since it's not the only we pay for in Mission Viejo that we don't have unfettered access too, like all those tennis courts. Oh no, there she goes again.
Dan Avery June 06, 2011 at 04:41 PM
You sound passionate about our community and that's great! Please attend a few council meetings. There are people who would love to cheapen the Mission Viejo experience. You might well be shocked at what you see at a council meeting. I know I was.
BPrice September 04, 2012 at 09:27 PM
What is the present day water supply filling Mission Viejo Lake? Is there any feedr springs or streams? At the rate of evaporation, especially in the summer months, there has to be a steady source of inflow of water to maintain present water levels.

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