The mess at Lake Merced

Pub date August 30, 2011

By Jerry Cadagan

OPINION Lake Merced is a San Francisco jewel that for years has suffered from the benign neglect of the city. Here are some facts:

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is the owner of the lake and surrounding land. In 1950, the SFPUC made a major mistake in delegating to the Recreation and Park Department vague authority for recreation at the lake. Under the City Charter, Lake Merced is not a park that would ordinarily be handled by RPD.

Starting in the 1980s, the lake’s water levels dropped precipitously, for a variety of reasons. Neither agency took serious action to determine why, or to reverse the situation. That was a clue that having two quarterbacks running the Lake Merced operation was a bad idea. But starting in late 1993, many community activists started grappling with the water level issue, and it’s now under control.

As water levels recovered, SFPUC staffers wasted no time acting like they were fully in charge by initiating a planning process that, after four years of consultants feeding at the trough, resulted in a 187-page Lake Merced Watershed Report, released in 2010. The SFPUC paid the consultants a humongous $588,434. You can judge whether SFPUC’s ratepayers got their money’s worth by reading the document at

In January 2007, the Board of Supervisors requested that SFPUC and RPD revise the 1950 delegation of recreation management to RPD. The board’s resolution recites that SFPUC “has made a commitment to manage and maintain all the watershed lands … and to obtain and allocate the resources necessary” to do so. The Watershed Report (p. 10) confirmed that the “intent is to transfer primary responsibility for management of the lands surrounding the lake back to the SFPUC.” Those who were involved in the discussions in late 2006 know full well that the reason it is desirable for SFPUC to be fully in charge was so that there would be a single point of accountability.

The board’s January 2007 resolution asked the two agencies to report back in 90 days. They never did. Rather, some 1,180 days after the resolution, the agencies released a draft memorandum of understanding purporting to respond to the board’s request. Amazingly, the draft MOU left virtually all management responsibilities in the same muddled condition that has existed since 1950. The agencies held a public meeting to explain the draft MOU on July 19. The 40 attendees were generally unhappy with the lack of real change in management being proposed.

In an inexplicable move, in late July the SFPUC released a document describing intended renovations to the dilapidated boathouse building at the lake. The total cost of the proposed renovations is $940,000. But the document itself, and recent conversation with SFPUC staff, makes it clear that to make the building meet all building codes and disability access requirements would cost $1.9 million. Why is the SFPUC now planning to spend $940,000 when its own watershed report says, on page 24, “it may be better to completely rebuild and expand the facility rather than renovate?”

The ongoing litany of mismanagement and fiscal imprudence is unacceptable. Coherent, accountable management is needed at Lake Merced. Call Mayor Ed Lee (554-6141), Supervisor Sean Elsbernd (554-6516) and SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington (554-3155) and demand it.

Jerry Cadagan was a co-founder of the Committee to Save Lake Merced in 1993 and has worked continuously on issues involving Lake Merced since that time.