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New Lake Merced Plans
Lake Merced Boats-Birds

Bike path improvement, erosion along the coast and falling trees around Lake Merced were major talking points during the Recreation and Parks Department’s planning meeting in November. Held in the Lake Merced Boathouse, this was the first of three project meetings planned from Rec & Parks to identify improvement opportunities in the area.

The Lake Merced Improvement Project was allocated $2 million in 2012 as part of the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond. Construction is estimated at $1.5 million. Project and construction management, architectural and engineering design services and permits are part of an estimated “soft-cost budget” of $500 thousand.


These are wonderful concepts, but is there going to be a budget for new staff to maintain it?”

“We are interested in hearing concerns about facility, program improvements and your priorities,” said Levi Conover, project manager for Recreation and Parks Department, who led the meeting. “If there seems to be a big demand, that will certainly get priority.”

With nearly 20 people in attendance, the first of several community members spoke out about her concerns of hazards on the multi-use path along the perimeter of Lake Merced.

“Rec & Parks does nothing for bike riders who want to get a real work out,” said the cyclist. “The multi-use path is unsafe because there are dogs without leashes and high bumps in the pavement. Some people have ear buds in and they don’t hear my bicycle horn.”

She suggested adding a bike lane that could connect with Great Highway, Golden Gate Park and the Presidio for faster pedalers.

“We need to paint a line down the middle and there needs to be signs reminding people to be aware of their surroundings,” she added, “because there is no awareness. We all need to understand that the path is for everyone.”

Conover said pedestrian safety is absolutely a priority for Rec & Parks.

“The bike path on the perimeter is a good example of an issue that will not come under the $1.5 million budget,” said a member from the group. “Can that drive the next bond measure?”

Lisa Wayne, natural resources manager of Rec & Parks, said the department will flag any requests that seem unreasonable.

“We want to manage expectations,” Wayne said. “We try to synthesize what people are saying, then put some costs to it and make decisions for the community.”

Falling trees and overgrown roots near Harding Road was an improvement opportunity mentioned.

“Rec & Parks lets the trees fall over the edge of the lake and eventually they are going to fall into the water,” said a male. “Either through this bond issue or something else, that needs to be addressed.”

In November of 2012 San Francisco passed the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond, a $195 million General Obligation Bond. The funding is divided into two allocations based on the jurisdiction of the parks and facilities scheduled to receive funding, with $160.5 million committed to the Rec& Park Department.

“Isn’t that a maintenance issue when you’ve got gaps six inches tall on the path?” a female inquired. “The bumps have been there for years. The tree roots are an issue and should be taken care of right away.”

Sunset Circle and the north end of Skyline Blvd require erosion control. Trail perimeters are in need of repair on the asphalt path. Picnic areas and regrading pathways on the viaduct near John Muir Drive and east Lake Merced Blvd require replacement and renovation. An increase in ADA accessibility and attention to a “massive tree that could use some work” were suggestions that emerged.

Rec & Park and the neighborhood agreed that restrooms and porta-potties need to be addressed, as well. “There is a dire need in the community for more restrooms, particularly around here. It’s mayhem,” said a female volunteer from the Boathouse.

Several community members felt the Boathouse area had been neglected and immediate attention was necessary. Youth from the California Dragon Boat Association prefer to change in their cars because no locker rooms are provided. It was proposed that 25% of the bond be used as seed money for increased boat storage.

“We are stretched very thin of money the city is giving us” Conover said. He added that smaller renovations such as paint jobs must rely on bonds due to a lack of general funding.

“They just spent a bunch of money on speed bumps in Golden Gate Park,” a voice spoke out.

In November, Rec & Park installed $128 thousand worth of gradually sloping, 3¼ inch high asphalt mounds and one raised walkway between Transverse Drive and the Great Highway.

Due to erosion, there are roughly 65 areas around the lake that require retaining walls. The most egregious ones identified are at the edge of the decomposed granite highway. Rec & Parks has put temporary erosion devices on the slope of sandy areas around the lake below Sunset Circle, but they say it continues to wash out. “We are starting to lose the earth end trail,” said Wayne. “A small retaining wall would require a 12” high retaining wall to keep the trail intact. If we keep it that way, it will start eating into the asphalt path.” Wayne added, “we will lose all of that soil and land to the lake if we don’t stabilize the path.”

From Sunset Circle, exposed roots from the cypress trees can be seen along Harding Road. A male voice from the crowd said he has noticed that “trees have gone down taking tons of dirt with them.”

“We need to support what makes the lake special; the water and rowing boats,” another local said, adding his bid for boat storage and pier maintenance as priorities.

There is an eight month process for planning, said Conover. Rec & Parks will reconvene for another community meeting in early 2017. Design and construction are being determined for spring or summer.

“The intention is to find a conceptual plan,” Conover said. “Some projects may be expensive, but easy to plan — while others, inexpensive yet complicated.”

One final community member stood.

“Look at it realistically,” he said, “the introductory proposal only has $2 million. [That’s] a drop in the bucket. These are wonderful concepts, but is there going to be a budget for new staff to maintain it?”

For the complete list of community feedback:

Tony Taylor is a local reporter.

December 2016/ January 2017

More Trending Articles

Removing contaminated soil.
Lake Merced Remediation Moves Forward

Since 1935 the Pacific Rod and Gun Club occupied approximately 10 acres on the southwest side of Lake Merced. The club offered recreational skeet and trap shooting for members and the public. The many years of shooting resulted in contaminants from the lead shot and clay pigeons being deposited into the soil and the lake. The effect of the lead shot and clay targets containing poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) was highly elevated levels of lead, arsenic and PAHs contamination in soils on much of the site.


Currently the removal of contaminated soils and backfilling of excavated areas with clean fill material is underway and will entail the excavation and appropriate offsite disposal of up to 46,500 cubic yards of waste and is expected to take up to 15 months.”

Investigations conducted at the site that showed the high levels of contamination led to lead shot being banned for use, replace by steel shot. Eventually, the City of San Francisco moved to close the facility and negotiated a remediation plan to scrub the site of contaminants. When lease expired on April 8, 2015, the site was closed as a shooting range and the cleanup process was started.

On October 21, the SF Public Utilities Commission and Recreation and Parks Department held a joint meeting to provide the community with an update on the site construction and remediation at the location previously occupied by the Pacific Rod and Gun Club, and discuss potential uses for the site.

The site is under the oversight of the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB). Currently the removal of contaminated soils and backfilling of excavated areas with clean fill material is underway and will entail the excavation and appropriate offsite disposal of up to 46,500 cubic yards of waste and is expected to take up to 15 months. The remediation project was assigned in June 2013, when the RWQCB issued Cleanup Order No. R2-2013-0023, requiring the remediation/cleanup of upland soils and additional investigation of in-lake sediments.

The SFPUC completed the required environmental review on the soil Remedial Action Plan and adopted the Final Mitigated Negative Declaration in the fall of 2014. Following a bid and award process, the construction contract was awarded to the ERRG Inc.

Site remediation work began in May 2015 and is targeted to be completed by February 2016. As of October 2015, cleanup work at this site is approximately 70% complete. Due to the discovery of additional buried contaminated soils, clay target debris onsite and in excess of previously anticipated amounts, excavations in some portions of the site have extended up to 11.5 feet below the surface.

The site remediation is expected to achieve the highest cleanup standards to minimize the risk of human exposure to elevated concentrations of the contaminants in compliance with the SFPUC Remedial Action Plan, which was approved by the RWQCB in October 2014. When it is completed unrestricted use of the site would be allowed. No additional ongoing monitoring and maintenance would be required and the potential for the leaching of contaminants into Lake Merced will be reduced.

A Request for Proposals (RFP) is expected to be issued in early 2016 by the Recreation and Park Department to help determine future uses for the site. All proposals for future uses are subject to Environmental Review and must meet a recreational purpose and protect the watershed. A final lease will be subject to approval by the Recreation and Park Department and potentially the Board of Supervisors. 

For more information about Lake Merced West and to keep apprised of updates, click and read.

November 2015

Boathouse Opens
(left to right) Joe Mees, general manager, Pacific Rowing Club; Mark Buell, Recreation and Park Commission president; and District 6 Supervisor Norman Yee get ready to send boaters off on the south lake during the celebration
Boathouse Renovation Brings Out Fans, Critics

Westside residents celebrated the re-opening of the Lake Merced Boathouse July 8. Various groups brought a variety of thoughts to the celebration.

Community activists asked for a new fishing concessionaire at the building. Residents showed up to see what they can expect. Rowing advocates touted the benefits the now-renovated building will bring to their community.

“This is such a great start,” said Dick Allen, a San Francisco resident. Allen has been advocating for more boat storage for the high school rowing clubs that use the lake because good rowing can mean admission for youth to an elite college.


Dorothy and Arthur Lathan, San Francisco residents for many years, said they have been waiting ever so long to have the boathouse restored. ... 'We’ve had lots of fun here,”'Dorothy said.”

Perhaps the biggest benefits for rowers will be a training room, which will be set up with exercise machines for high school rowers. One high school that practices at the lake has had to unpack its machines from a closet for each practice.

Boathouse Interior
Current Boathouse interior

“This will be an enormous improvement over our existing facilities,” said the high school coach. He will use the additional time for student training.

The coach was equally pleased about the renovated second-floor balcony, where parents will be able to watch their children practice on the south lake. Before the renovation, the balcony was both decrepit and unsafe.

The pleasure expressed by the rowing community is tempered by a frustration over the lack of a fishing concessionaire at the renovated building.

Boathouse Terrace
Upstairs: a part of the renovated balcony from which parents can watch their children row on the south lake

“As you may know there has not been a fishing concessionaire at Lake Merced since April of 1999,” said Jerry Cadagan, a community activist. The renovated building includes a renovated concession area, according to a San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (SFRPD) press release. But SFRPD, which will operate the boathouse, has not chosen a business for the space.

“Let there be no mistake, fishing is back at Lake Merced,” said Phil Ginsberg, general manager, SFRPD. Ginsberg was speaking to a crowd gathered to hear dignitaries celebrate the re-opening. But it doesn’t appear that will include supplies for fishing.

Piers at the Boathouse
Boats are set out on the dock before the re-opening celebration begins

“It looks like at [this] time we are focusing on maintaining the Boathouse as a community hub,” said Connie Chan, deputy director of public affairs, SFRPD. She said the department would keep the Observer posted “if and when” the department is ready for a concessionaire.

The renovation project cost $3.2 million, which was shared by the SFRPD and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and included 7,200 square feet of restored space on the upper floor. Underneath is space for boat storage.

Dorothy and Arthur Lathan, San Francisco residents for many years, said they have been waiting ever so long to have the boathouse restored. The couple was at a lot of boathouse parties before the building was neglected.

“We’ve had lots of fun here,” Dorothy said.


Keith Burbank is a local journalist.

September 2014

The new paint-job looks great, but what about the real problems?

Lake Merced Update

Progress or Paint-Job at the Boathouse?

West side residents want to help their children. But two local government agencies don’t seem to share the same concerns. With the rowing clubs at Lake Merced sending kids to top schools, such as Berkeley and Yale, resident Dick Allen is asking when the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department will get serious about additional boat storage for the rowers.

“Why is this sport not being addressed,” Allen asked. “It’s been ten years and counting.”

Currently, high school rowing clubs store their boats at the Lake Merced Boathouse, but storage is at capacity.


…others also wonder why the Rec & Parks Department decided to renovate the current boathouse when a $560,000 study recommended a new boathouse. “Given its condition, it is generally believed that the building will need to be replaced rather than rehabilitated,” the Lake Merced Watershed Report says …”

“We’ve maxed out this facility,” said Joe Mees, general manager, Pacific Rowing Club, speaking about his club’s storage space. Pacific Rowing is one of the two high school rowing clubs that use the lake. The other is St. Ignatius, a club from St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco. St. Ignatius’s storage space appeared full as well.

Mees said Pacific Rowing wants to expand the club to include junior school high students. “Just can’t do it,” Mees said. “Every boat here’s used two times a day.”

Rowing Boats
Experienced rowers are in high demand by top colleges and universities, and savvy SF youngsters flock to the water to earn the scholarships they seek

Allen and others also wonder why the Rec & Parks Department decided to renovate the current boathouse when a $560,000 study recommended a new boathouse. “Given its condition, it is generally believed that the building will need to be replaced rather than rehabilitated,” the Lake Merced Watershed Report says on page 43. The report was written by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which co-manages the lake with the Rec & Parks Department. The City is spending $2.6 million to rehabilitate what it said it needed to be rebuilt, Allen and others argue.

In response, the Rec & Parks Department and the SFPUC said, “While the 2011 Watershed Report did note the preference of Lake Merced advocates for replacement over renovation, the report also emphasized that any new boathouse strategy must also include consideration of phasing to ensure that existing facilities are sufficient until replacement facilities can be built, and most importantly, that sufficient financing of any new facilities is in place. For both the renovation project and the 2012 [Park] bond, RPD and SFPUC have determined that available funds were not sufficient for the construction of a new boathouse facility.”

Allen would argue otherwise. “We’re talking about building a warehouse,” Allen said. He said Butler Steel Buildings makes warehouses for less than $2 million, the amount of the 2012 Park Bond.

Mees said he is grateful to be able to use the boathouse, but he said there is enough demand to supply another boathouse. Currently the two rowing clubs are putting about 250 kids in the water, Mees said.

In addition, Allen said the high schools need more space for boats. Most of the training is done in eight-person boats, but college coaches recommend training in two-person boats. The high school clubs have only a few two-person boats. And if a college coach wants a student for their rowing team, the student may have a chance to attend an elite school.

Jerry Cadagan, a Lake Merced activist, said an ideal location for a new boathouse is easternmost acre of land currently occupied by the Pacific Rod & Gun Club.

The Rec & Parks Department and the SFPUC may agree. In their combined response to the Observer’s questions, the two agencies said, “One potential location for a new boathouse is on the property that is currently occupied by the Pacific Rod and Gun Club. However, any future uses of that property won’t be discussed until the cleanup plan for that site is possibly approved in the summer of 2014.”

“It comes back to the kids of our City,” Allen said. The SFPUC and the Rec & Parks Department has no reason to ignore these kids.

Keith Burbank is a local journalist.

December 2013

The Boat House at Lake Merced

Lake Merced Update

From Bad to Worse at Lake Merced

We haven't done a column since the March issue of the Observer and at that point we expressed some optimism on two fronts – first, District 7 had a new Supervisor and we hoped he might see to it that the $2 million in Park Bond money allocated for Lake Merced was wisely spent, and second, the long sought SFPUC Commission Lake Merced workshop was scheduled for March 26. Both of our hoped for "New Horizons" have been a disappointment.


Supervisor Yee and, most disappointingly, SFPUC staff are acting as though it will fall in Rec & Park's lap. Goodbye $2 million."

We had hoped that Supervisor Yee would take the lead in having the Board of Supervisors direct that the $2 million of bond money should be managed by SFPUC, rather than Rec & Park, whose only role at Lake Merced is based on 24 words in a 1950 SFPUC resolution giving Rec & Park vague "recreational and park" responsibilities. We won't now waste your time repeating the litany of mismanagement, neglect and other sins that Rec & Park has wrought upon the lake since 1950. But despite the fact that the City Attorney's office has said that the Supervisors should play an important part in determining which agency controls the $2 million, Rec & Park, Supervisor Yee and, most disappointingly, SFPUC staff are acting as though it will fall in Rec & Park's lap. Goodbye $2 million. Maybe they'll spend some or all of it cleaning up the $12 million mess they created by not requiring the gun club to carry the right kind of pollution liability insurance.

The March 26 Lake Merced workshop was a different kind of disappointment. The meeting itself was quite successful, with a standing room only crowd, time for speakers to voice their thoughts, and an attentive group of all five SFPUC Commissioners. The Observer carried an extensive story about the meeting in its April issue. That story named by name at least three speakers who explicitly requested that the SFPUC take back from Rec & Park whatever limited management responsibilities Rec & Park has. There were others who made the same request who were not mentioned by name in the story. Yet, when the minutes of the meeting came out, you would have thought the meeting took place in one of the bars on the cruise ship I was on in the Caribbean on March 26. The minutes made no mention of the numerous public comments requesting that SFPUC take full management control. The draft minutes inaccurately stated that Rec & Park had fishing programs at the lake; and failed to mention that one participant had to correct Phil Ginsburg's erroneous claim that Rec & Park paid the full cost of a new dock and ramp for the rowers. A number of the errors of omission and commission were called to the attention of the Commissioners in a letter to the Commissioners from the Committee to Save Lake Merced. We were ignored. We're getting used to it.

But since then, the news has taken an even more negative turn. To understand the seriousness of the latest bad news requires a brief lesson in the history of the Committee to Save Lake Merced's involvement with Lake Merced. From 1993 until the mid 2000's, the issue was the declining lake levels. Thanks to the efforts of our partners at CalTrout, and many others, that issue was brought reasonably well under control around 2004, and even now Daly City is working on a project that has the potential of getting the lake to the optimum level. There are no less than five reports, studies, organizational recommendations that all agree on the same optimum level. But at the June 11 SFPUC Commission meeting, SFPUC staff made a presentation that strongly suggests that, because of other staff projects, so far unapproved by the Commission, that lake level might not be attainable. So, after about 20 years of volunteer work involving hundreds of volunteers and thousands of hours of volunteer time, what we seem to have is a case of "a few inches forward, but many feet in reverse."

It's hard to say how much more of the pain dealing with the SFPUC and Rec & Park bureaucracy the current crew of volunteers can tolerate. So we encourage others to get involved; it's your lake, it's the Peoples' lake, and it's being neglected, abused and disrespected by your government.

Jerry Cadagan co-founded the Committee to Save Lake Merced in 1993.

July-August 2013

Hearing Crowd
The standing room only crowd at the SFPUC’s only Lake Merced hearing (ever). Many were gun club members. Missing? The students who actually use the lake.

Lake Merced Hearing

Mud Pies at Lake Merced

The entire San Francisco Public Utilities Commission visited Lake Merced for the first time on March 26, 2013 to discuss what should be done about the City’s largest natural fresh-water lake and its many problems.

They got more than an earful from a variety of stakeholders, including members of the Pacific Rod and Gun Club, dragon-boat racers, and some calling for the SFPUC to remove San Francisco’s Recreation & Parks Department (RPD) as the managing bureaucracy for recreational activities at the lake.

They also found out that this same department was just awarded a grant of half a million dollars from California’s State Department of Boating and Waterways to fix a dock, gangway, and anchoring system on the lake’s north side.

Plus only a couple of days before this meeting the lake was stocked with trout, so now the RPD can once again offer a fishing program.

Steve Ritchie, an assistant general manager at the SFPUC, started by giving a presentation to the standing-room-only crowd packing the upper floor of the Harding Park golf course clubhouse, reviewing the challenges to revitalizing the lake.

There is the problem of drainage from nearby Daly City, which dumps some of its extra storm water into the Lake Merced area through a canal and tunnel that goes around the lake.


The SFPUC and Rec and Park has ignored the major capital recommendation in the Watershed report published in 2011,” he said. “The $588,000 PUC report strongly endorsed building a new boathouse to provide additional storage space for the overcrowded rowing clubs.””

“That is a real bottleneck right now,” said Ritchie. “So we’re working with Daly City right now to improve the drainage . planning there and hopefully provide for treatment of storm water so we can have some of that storm water go into the lake. … It really revolves around Lake Merced as part of the solution for flood control in Daly City, as well as providing a stable water source for San Francisco.”

He mentioned the Pacific Rod and Gun Club, a shooting range that has been there since 1928 that is now slated for a cleanup of environment contaminants, and its future there is uncertain.

Mary Allen, 76 teaches boaters at Lake Merced
Mary Allen, at 76, uses the boating facilities almost daily, she also teaches younger “skullers” the ropes. Boaters comprise the largest group of lake users.

The boathouse used by rowing clubs has fallen into disrepair and isn’t being used right now. It’s in the process of being fixed up enough to use again.

There were long-abandoned docks that have only recently been removed, and plenty of random debris still around the lake to be removed.

Another program likely to impact the lake is the San Francisco Groundwater Project, which will tap into its groundwater feed to supplement the City’s water supply, and could be used as an emergency source of water in the event of a major earthquake.

At this time management of the lake is ultimately the responsibility of the SFPUC, and they are focused on water level and quality, wildlife habitat, environmental cleanup, and the gun club’s lease.

SFPUC gives the RPD $300,000 annually to fund gardening and maintenance staffing, said Ritchie. The RPD contributes another $150,000 of its funds for the same.

RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg said a “big piece” of the budget picture is the recent Harding Park public golf course renovation.

“The elephant in the room or the driver in the bag, as it were, is management of the golf course,” said Ginsburg. “This recreation asset, Harding Park golf course, is a nine-million dollar investment.”

Ginsburg said the total tab for the renovations, including money chipped in by the SFPUC, was about $20 million.

“We just recently replaced the dock and ramp that are used by a number of the rowing clubs on south lake,” he also noted. “There are still ramps that need work and we look forward to taking those on.

“Our big current focus is the Lake Merced boathouse. Thanks to the (SFPUC’s) support and investment, we’re able to partner on this $2 million renovation of the existing boathouse. The plans are to renovate the boathouse include renovations to the restrooms, which have already been completed, a concession area, a new rowing exercise room and a community room.”

Ginsburg said the parks bond recently passed in the last election set that amount aside for spending at this lake.

Cleaning up the Pacific Rod and Gun Club and dealing with clay remnant, lead and steel shot in the 10-acre area is projected to cost the SFPUC (the public) about $12.7 million.

Probably the largest group that showed up at the workshop were supporters of the shooting range, maybe a dozen people, one of which included Ali Chiang. She joined several others in asking the commission to bring the club back after the cleanup.

Dick Allen, describing himself as a user of the lake for “water related purposes,” took exception to Ginsberg’s assertion that that Rec and Park replaced the dock and ramp since “the cost was funded by the rowing clubs and RPD on a 50/50 split.”

Allen and his entire family have been rowing the lake for over 20 years.

“The SFPUC and Rec and Park has ignored the major capital recommendation in the Watershed report published in 2011,” he said. “The $588,000 PUC report strongly endorsed building a new boathouse to provide additional storage space for the overcrowded rowing clubs.”

The biggest concern now is how the recently passed city bond that allocates two million for Lake Merced will be allocated. This money is separate from the 2 million being spent on the old boathouse that did not include increasing boat storage.”

Dick Morten said he has been described as a “cranky old guy” by some of his detractors, and he suggested that maybe he was getting cranky from dealing with lake issues.

“Commissioners, you ought to be getting cranky also,” said Morten. “Aren’t you tired of mushroom management, keep them in the dark and feed them B.S.? … Eliminate the hydra-headed, unaccountable dual management of this resource, Lake Merced. Take full control. The PUC can do all the services that are required by Rec-Park.”

Dan Murphy of the Golden Gate Audubon Society also asked the commission to take control of the lake. “We think that the commission, your commission, needs to be in charge. We don’t have any problem with the PUC or Rec & Park running some programs, that’s great, but we need some commission where the buck stops, and that needs to be you because this is your resource and you are our representatives. Take care of it.”

Murphy called for the creation of a master plan to guide everyone in revitalizing the lake.

Jim Stark represented a neighborhood organization called the Lakeshore Acres Improvement Club and he also asked for the SFPUC to take overall control of managing the lake.

“What we need is leadership and we believe the PUC is the correct organization to do the leadership,” said Stark.

When interviewed after the meeting, Ginsburg dismissed the idea that his department should hand its responsibilities at the lake over to the SFPUC.

“I don’t think that the vast number of folks that actually rely on our programs and play golf here and kayak in the lake and boat and even the rowing clubs actually share that perspective,” said Ginsburg. “The lake is a combination of environmental stewardship and recreation functions and recreation is our business. We had over 450 kids last summer enrolled in summer camps. This year all of the waterfront summer camps are completely sold out.

“We have different missions. The PUC is responsible for wastewater, and electricity and power, and sewers and water quality. And the PUC’s responsibility here, their primary purpose is to ensure lake levels and water quality and some of the infrastructure. There are some functions that we share. We are both engaged in environmental stewardship responsibilities but recreation is not part of their core mission.”

The Commission’s Vice President, Art Torres, said the next step is for the commission to take all of the spoken and written public input and work with their staff to come up with responses to community concerns.

He also said instead of another public hearing, he hopes to put together “a more informal committee hearing where you have representatives of every interest group that’s concerned about the lake, and staff, and I commit to be there. … I really do think that it’s impossible to come to recommendations in a public hearing but it is possible to get access to your viewpoints. I think that’s important as a first thing. This is not the last thing.”

Thomas K. Pendergast is a SF freelance reporter.

April 2013

New Horizons for Lake Merced?
Sunrise at Lake Merced can be a busy time, when rowers from around the City converge on the crumbling piers.

One of the lesser-known works of the iconic and ageless progressive rock band, The Moody Blues was New Horizons. It was written and recorded in 1972, when all was well at Lake Merced. As our recent columns in the Observer have detailed, all has not been well at the lake for the last 20 or more years. Declining water levels (now almost under control); gross mismanagement by both the Recreation and Park Dept and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC has legal jurisdiction over the lake); a $12 million pollution problem caused by the Pacific Rod & Gun Club due to total neglect by Rec & Park and SFPUC; no fishing concessionaire since 1999, and no effort to find one; rotten piers; the list is endless, and very sad. The lake was once a jewel of a resource, and declared by Field & Stream Magazine to be one of the finest urban lakes in the country. That’s far from the case now. But there are two potential “new horizons” that have a long shot of turning things around at the lake.


…the lake is situated in District 7, which has a new Supervisor, Norman Yee, who has the ability to look at the lake and its problems with fresh eyes.”

First, the lake is situated in District 7, which has a new Supervisor, Norman Yee, who has the ability to look at the lake and its problems with fresh eyes. The timing couldn’t be better, because last year the voters passed the $195 million park bond, and the bond explicitly earmarks $2 million for capital improvements at Lake Merced. But how that money is spent and who spends it will be critical. The lake is still under a convoluted two-headed monster management arrangement, with SFPUC having jurisdictional control and Rec & Park having been delegated (in 1950) ambiguous “recreational and park” responsibilities. (Lake Merced is not a park, as defined in the SF Park Code.) The bond documents don’t specifically say which agency controls the $2 million. Because SFPUC has jurisdictional control, and because bond monies can only be spent on capital projects, it would be logical that SFPUC administer the $2 million. But sadly, logic has seldom in the recent past prevailed in matters involving the lake. Supervisor Yee has the ability to change that, require some common sense, and see to it that SFPUC spends the money in a sensible way. There are crying needs, the biggest being a new boathouse for the numerous high school and adult rowers (scullers) who use the lake. Road and trail projects, and erosion control, should also be high priorities.

The second “new horizon” that has theoretical promise involves the five-member Commission of the SFPUC. After a year or so of urging by Lake Merced activists, the Commissioners have agreed to hold an in-depth workshop focused solely on Lake Merced. The workshop is tentatively scheduled for March 26, to be held somewhere on the Harding Park golf course property. To date it has been apparent that the Commissioners, who understandably have had a lot on their plate with water, sewage and power issues, have been unable to focus on the lake and its many issues and problems. But it is their responsibility to do so and hopefully, by spending nearly a day doing it, they will conclude that some leadership from the top is needed to get things under control, starting with the two-headed management monster. Among the matters they ought to consider is having SFPUC take on 100% management control, designating a competent mid-level management person at SFPUC as the overall lake manager, and bringing back the highly competent professional fishing and recreational concessionaire company that left in 1999. We encourage those interested in the future of Lake Merced to email the SFPUC Commission Secretary ( and ask to be put on a list of people to receive further information about the Lake Merced workshop.

It’s past time for San Francisco government (specifically Supervisor Yee and the SFPUC) to take the lead in restoring Lake Merced to its former glory. For the past 20 years all the heavy lifting has been done by volunteer non-profit organizations (CalTrout, Friends of Lake Merced, the Lake Merced Task Force, the Committee to Save Lake Merced) and individual volunteers too numerous to name. Faced with the frustrations of dealing with SFPUC and Rec & Park, those volunteers are now close to the “burn out” point. It’s time for the folks who are responsible for the lake to step up. Lake lovers and users shouldn’t hold their breath, but should hold out hope. And do contact the SFPUC Commissioners through the email address above and do contact Supervisor Yee at (withdrawn). Ask them to be proactive is assuring that the $2 million bond money is spent wisely, and ask them to take steps to straighten out the disastrous two-headed management situation at the lake. And finally, do attend the March 26 SFPUC Commissioner Lake Merced Workshop and express yourselves.

Jerry Cadagan co-founded the Committee to Save Lake Merced in 1993.

March 2013

Will Santa Deliver for Lake Merced?

Boats and Birds

As we approach the Christmas Season what would Lake Merced recreationists and activists like to have Santa Claus put under their Christmas tree? We’d love to see a simple Christmas card from the Recreation and Park Department, acknowledging that it has performed poorly for the past 62 years as co-manager at Lake Merced, and that it is now prepared to relinquish its co-management role at the lake, other than management of Harding Park golfing and the Natural Areas Program. Here’s a very abbreviated summary of the most important facts.


And while Rec & Park was raking in the money over the years, its performance while “occupying, using and improving Lake Merced for recreational and park purposes” would have made Scrooge proud”

First, Lake Merced is owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). Second, Lake Merced is not a “park” within the meaning of the City’s Park Code. Third, Rec & Park’s sole basis for having had a co-management role at the lake are these 24 terribly unfortunate words found in a 1950 SFPUC resolution: “The Public Utilities Commission hereby confers upon the Park and Recreation Commission, the right to occupy, use and improve, for park and recreational purposes” the Lake Merced Tract. Fourth, for many years it has been apparent to observers that having SFPUC and Rec & Park as co-managers was a mistake, and in January 2007 the Board of Supervisors adopted Resolution 14-07 requesting the two agencies to work out a modification of the ill-advised 1950 resolution in order to give SFPUC greater management responsibility. They have failed to do so.

The result of all this has been that since 1950, Lake Merced has acted as a veritable 365 day a year Christmas tree for Rec & Park. It has collected rent from tenants, with the annual rents collected by Rec & Park of late being $77,100. It has collected permit fees from picnickers and others with the total fees collected in 2011 being $15,294. (There is a serious question whether Rec & Park has the legal authority to issue permits and collect fees at the lake because Rec & Park’s permitting authority is limited to activities in “parks” within the meaning of the Park Code, and Lake Merced is not a park. Likewise, Rec & Park’s authority to regulate traffic and issue parking tickets at Lake Merced is highly dubious.) And while Rec & Park’s revenue collections at the lake have been running close to $100,000 a year for many years, the only known Rec & Park expenditure at the lake in recent years has been a one time small contribution equal to about 50% of their annual rent revenue receipts. That was for a new ramp to the dock used by hundreds of high school rowers.

And while Rec & Park was raking in the money over the years, its performance while “occupying, using and improving Lake Merced for recreational and park purposes” would have made Scrooge proud. Here are just a few of the lowlights –

• As early as March 1988 Urban Park Concessionaires, the concessionaire at the lake, was writing letters to Rec & Park asking for assistance in dealing with the declining water levels at the lake. Rec & Park routinely ignored such requests.

• Rec & Park has been the manager of the month-to-month lease with Pacific Rod & Gun Club (PRGC) from 1950 until very recently. Not once during that time did Rec & Park require PRGC to obtain the proper kind of insurance to protect San Francisco from liability from environmental pollution commonly associated with skeet shooting. Now San Francisco is faced with an estimated $10 million bill for cleaning up lead and other forms of pollution.

• In April 1999, Urban Park Concessionaires’ contract with Rec & Park expired and it declined to renew the contract citing the low water problem and “15 years of talk, meetings and studies with very little being done.” Rec & Park employee Marvin Yee told the Chronicle’s Tom Stienstra that Rec & Park was “scrambling” to find a new concessionaire to service the lake’s fishing constituency. Now, 13 years later, they are apparently still scrambling, as there has not been a fishing concession at the lake since April 1999.

• In September 2003 the Chronicle reported that the Gibbs Fishing Pier had rotted and collapsed. The Chronicle quoted Rec & Park’s General Manager as saying that the department would take care of that problem “as fast as we can.” Nine years later the Gibbs Fishing Pier remains closed.

After 62 years of that kind of performance it is time for Rec & Park to willingly relinquish management responsibilities back to SFPUC. Rec & Park has over 200 true parks to manage. It’s no secret that its budget is constantly precarious. It no longer will be receiving the substantial rental payments from PRGC, since SFPUC recently took back management of that lease. Rec & Park could give Lake Merced users a Christmas gift by bowing out and gracefully ending what an October 7, 2011 Chronicle opinion piece called the “two-headed monster” controlling Lake Merced. If the leadership at Rec & Park would have the wisdom and courage to do so, the Westside Observer could become the modern day New York Sun and proclaim that, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

We have been writing about the problems at Lake Merced for the Observer since the October 2011 issue and encourage those curious about the shenanigans at the lake to go online and read our prior columns at

Jerry Cadagan, Co-founded the Committee to Save Lake Merced in 1993

December 2012

And the Beat (and Stalling Game) Goes On
Lake Users
The busy boathouses and docks of Lake Merced. attract many teens and adults alike.

To understand what’s currently happening (or not happening), this article begins with a brief summary of the management debacle at Lake Merced.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) owns the lake. It is not a park within the meaning of the city’s Park Code or Charter. In 1950, SFPUC made a grievous mistake and delegated to the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) limited authority to be involved at the lake for “park and recreational purposes”. RPD’s performance at the lake has left much to be desired, to be charitable. So, in 2007 the Board of Supervisors requested the two agencies work out a better management arrangement with SFPUC taking on more management responsibility. The two agencies did nothing until community activists applied pressure in 2010 and 2011. In November 2011 the Commission of the SFPUC rejected a proposed MOU between the two agencies. The MOU presented by SFPUC staff essentially just perpetuated the dual management situation, which has been a dismal failure. In May 2012 SFPUC staff took another draft MOU to the Commission. It was virtually identical to the one rejected in November 2011. Again it was rejected and the Commissioners showed some annoyance, and asked that within six months staffs of both agencies bring back something more specific. The Commissioners’ comments included words and phrases like “plan and budget numbers,” “MOU of a narrower scope,” and “how financial resources will be secured and concession contracts developed.” In other words, the Commissioners gave the staff very specific instructions on what they wanted to see six months later.


RPD’s performance at the lake has left much to be desired, to be charitable. So, in 2007 the Board of Supervisors requested the two agencies work out a better management arrangement with SFPUC taking on more management responsibility.”

Now, let’s fast forward to early October this year. For months, the Lake Merced matter has been scheduled to be before the SFPUC Commission on November 13. In early October I sent an email to senior SFPUC staff asking what they had planned for that meeting. The response incredulously said, “Based on the Commission’s comments at the May 8 meeting, we have done no further work regarding an MOU between the SFPUC and Rec and Park.” We’re not making that up! After specifically being told that the Commissioners wanted an MOU of a narrower scope, with a plan and a budget, and explanation of how RPD was going to handle finances and concession contracts, the staff at SFPUC keeps a straight face in telling the activist community that they are not doing any more work on the MOU.

But it gets better. Having had since May 8 to do a better job sorting out responsibilities, the SFPUC staff just delayed the November 13 appearance before the Commission for two weeks (until November 27) giving as a reason, “additional time is needed for coordination with Recreation and Park Department.” And we’re not making that up either! And at the Commissioner’s October 23 meeting, the SFPUC staff lamely explained the delay as being a result of the fact that RPD staff has been busy answering questions about the Parks Bond measure on the November 6 ballot. So, since May 8, RPD has had so many questions about the Parks Bond that they haven’t had time to come up with a plan and a budget for their continued role at Lake Merced? That feeble excuse alone should be enough to convince any reasonable person that RPD should have no management role at Lake Merced. Let’s see what happens when the SFPUC s revisits this sad story on November 27.

Jerry Cadagan, Co-founder, Committee to Save Lake Merced

November 2012

A Primer On Lake Merced

For District 7 Supervisorial Aspirants And Their Constituents

In about a month residents of District 7 will elect a new Supervisor. They are fortunate to live in an area that is home to one of the most unique environmental and recreational lakes in all of urban America. Lake Merced is one of the few lakes of any significant size located within the city limits of a major American city.


SFPUC and Rec & Park have recently embarked on a $2 million renovation of the existing boathouse building. The plan does not provide for a single additional square foot of badly needed boat storage space. And, so typical of the muddled two-headed monster management structure at the lake, a Rec & Park staff report relating to the renovation describes the responsibilities this way: “SF PUC is managing Phase I and Phase II of this project with oversight from Rec & Park.” What in heaven’s name does that mean?”

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about the lake, and not enough hard facts, currently in the public domain. This column will address the more significant misconceptions and facts, in the hopes that the candidates and their constituents will approach this election with an appreciation of some important basic facts, and recognition that there is substantial room for improvement of management at the lake.

  • 1. Lake Merced is NOT a park within the meaning of the City’s Park Code Section 2.01 defines “park” as all properties, facilities, etc. “placed under the control, management and direction of the Recreation and Park Commission by the Charter…”. The Charter does not give the Rec and Park any control at Lake Merced. The Lake Merced Tract is owned by SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), purchased as a part of the acquisition of the Spring Valley Water Company in 1930. The fact that Lake Merced and the surrounding area is not a “park” raises interesting questions as to the right of Rec and Park to issue event permits, enforce traffic rules, and do other things it is authorized to do in true parks.
  • 2. Recreation and Park’s management role at Lake Merced is exclusively a function of these few words in a 1950 SFPUC resolution: “The Public Utilities Commission hereby confers upon the Park and Recreation Commission, the right to occupy, use and improve, for park and recreational purposes” the Lake Merced Tract. There is no publicly available subsequent memorandum of agreement, or anything similar, between the two agencies spelling out in more detail the respective responsibilities of each agency.
  • 3. Since Rec & Park assumed management for “park and recreational purposes,” there have been a couple of major disturbing developments. First, as recent publicity shows, there has been significant contamination of the 14 acre John Muir site long occupied by the Pacific Rod & Gun Club. It may be necessary to spend as much as $10 million to clean up the contamination. Astoundingly, never since 1950 has Rec & Park conditioned renewal of the month-to-month lease on the Gun Club maintaining appropriate insurance to protect the City from shouldering that financial liability. SFPUC staff has told its Commission that SFPUC rate payers may bear that cost. Second, No effort has been made to replace the company that had for many years operated a successful fishing concession operation out of a portable trailer that left the lake in 1999.
  • 4. More management responsibility In late 2006/early 2007 the SFPUC gave members of the Lake Merced Task Force assurances that SFPUC would take on more management responsibility at the lake. In January 2007 the Board of Supervisors passed Resolution 14-07 requesting the two agencies to modify the old 1950 resolution. Consistent with those assurances and that resolution, SFPUC sponsored a 188 page consultants’ report — the Lake Merced Watershed Report — that took about four years and $588,484 of SFPUC rate payer money to prepare.* At page 10 is language confirming that the intent of the Supervisors was to “transfer primary responsibility for management …. back to the SFPUC.” On two occasions (Nov. 8, 2011 and May 8, 2012) SFPUC staff presented its Commission with a proposed MOU purporting to comply with the Supervisors’ mandate. On both occasions the Commission has rejected the MOU as being inadequate. The matter now appears to be in a state of limbo.
  • 5. Boathouse Building At page 43 of the Lake Merced Watershed Report it’s stated that the downstairs of the existing boathouse building “is no longer adequate to meet the space needs of the rowing clubs that use the Lake.” SFPUC and Rec & Park have recently embarked on a $2 million renovation of the existing boathouse building. The plan does not provide for a single additional square foot of badly needed boat storage space. And, so typical of the muddled two-headed monster management structure at the lake, a Rec & Park staff report relating to the renovation describes the responsibilities this way: “SF PUC is managing Phase I and Phase II of this project with oversight from Rec & Park.” What in heaven’s name does that mean?

We have been asking for years, “Who’s in charge at Lake Merced?” Maybe the candidates for District 7 Supervisor can engage on that question over the next month and get some answers.

Jerry Cadagan Co-founded Committee to Save Lake Merced

October 2012

Lake Merced pollution at Pacific Rod and Gun
Rec & Park's $10 Million Lake Merced Mess

Continuing bureaucratic follies at Lake Merced: more details are out about a shocking new revelation: the cost to clean up the soil contamination at the Pacific Rod & Gun Club (PRGC) site is estimated to be $10.7 million. Past use of lead shot and non-biodegradable clay targets has resulted in elevated levels of lead, arsenic and poly aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil. Under pressure from the local Regional Water Quality Control Board, SFPUC has demanded that PRGC pay to clean the problem up. That should end the issue, one would think. Either PRGC has the financial wherewithal to pay the $10 million, or it carried insurance to cover this kind of problem. Right? Sorry, wrong on both counts.


…new revelation: the cost to clean up the soil contamination at the Pacific Rod & Gun Club (PRGC) site is estimated to be $10.7 million. Past use of lead shot and non-biodegradable clay targets has resulted in elevated levels of lead, arsenic and poly aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil.”

So, why didn’t PRGC’s landlord, the City That Knows How, require PRGC to carry insurance? Here’s the sordid history: SFPUC owns all of the Lake Merced area. In 1950 it made a terrible mistake and delegated to the SF Recreation & Park Dept (RPD) vague management responsibilities at Lake Merced. The month-to-month lease with PRGC was already in effect, so RPD took over administration of the lease and gladly accepted rent payments from PRGC. But, never once since 1950 did it occur to RPD to tell PRGC that if PRGC wanted to continue as a month-to-month tenant it had to get insurance protecting the City from potential liabilities associated with operating a gun shooting operation. Amazingly, since the month-to-month lease was signed in 1933 it has not been amended once! So now PRGC says it doesn’t have insurance and it doesn’t happen to have $10 million laying around to pay the clean up bill.

SFPUC recently took back responsibility for managing the PRGC lease and gave PRGC a notice of eviction after PRGC failed to agree to a badly needed updated lease agreement. But even more recently SFPUC has strangely backed off of its plans to evict PRGC, possibly on the theory that having PRGC continuing to pay over $4,000 a month in rent is sufficient motivation to keep the gun club around while the parties tried to figure out where the $10 million for clean up will come from. Or maybe the visit to PRGC late last year by Mayor Lee somehow played a part in SFPUC’s decision to slow down the eviction process.

So, who will pay the $10 million bill? A report that SFPUC staff submitted to its Commissioners in May suggested that SFPUC ratepayers might pick up the tab, presumably because SFPUC owns the property. Why should people paying for their water and sewer service pick up the bill for a problem directly caused by the gross negligence of RPD and its staff? No doubt the liability will ultimately fall on the City & County of San Francisco. But who within the City actually bears the cost is an intramural issue that should not be quickly dismissed by sticking SFPUC ratepayers with the bill.

If there is any fairness in this generally unfair world we live in, the $10 million will come out of RPD’s budget. We frequently hear the word “accountability” bandied about these days. Accountability in this case means that the agency that allowed the situation to fester into a $10 million problem should pick up the tab. But maybe that’s too much to expect. We’re willing to lower our expectations and seriously suggest that, at a minimum, when the SFPUC Commission reconsiders the overall Lake Merced management issue at its November 13 meeting it politely thank RPD for past services and take back full management responsibilities at the lake, just as it recently took back responsibility for administering the PRGC lease. We can’t afford another $10 million RPD mistake.

Jerry Cadagan, Co-founder, Committee to Save Lake Merced. Feedback: Cadagan

September 2012

Three Strikes and You Are Out

In last month’s update on this endless story, we said that SFPUC staff planned to take to its Commission on May 8 a slightly revised version of the proposed MOU with Rec & Park regarding management at Lake Merced. An earlier version had not been acceptable to the Commission last November. We should have come right out and predicted that on May 8 the Commission would again reject the latest draft. That’s exactly what it did. The attitude of the Commissioners is best understood in this excerpt from the draft minutes of the May 8 meeting:


So, the Commissioners at SFPUC have now twice rejected vague proposals for two-headed management at Lake Merced. Hopefully the third strike will come if and when staffs of SFPUC and Rec & Park take another swing at the issue.”

“Commissioner Vietor expressed her frustration with the amount of time that the SFPUC has been in discussions regarding the management of Lake Merced and the MOU, and doesn’t feel the MOU is significantly different that was presented in November. She would like to see an MOU with a tight timeline, a plan that outlines recreational activities, budget numbers, staffing, and details how the relationship between the SFPUC and Recreation and Park will work.”

So, the Commissioners at SFPUC have now twice rejected vague proposals for two-headed management at Lake Merced. Hopefully the third strike will come if and when staffs of SFPUC and Rec & Park take another swing at the issue. We have long said that a single agency should be fully in charge at Lake Merced. The limited recreational needs could easily be taken care of by contracting with a professional lake/reservoir management company, much as is done at numerous reservoirs and lakes around the state. Companies like Urban Park Concessionaires and Rocky Mountain Recreation both do an excellent job at recreational lakes in California.

There is also possible good news in store for Lake Merced, but with one potential problem currently at hand. There is a $195 million Parks Bond being proposed for the November 2012 ballot. It will provide monies to both Rec & Park and the Port Commission. Early indications are that at least $2 million will be ear marked for Lake Merced. However, we’ve looked at the draft bond ordinance and are very concerned that the language is inadequate to assure that bond monies can be spent at the lake, because SFPUC, the owner of the lake, is not specifically named in the ordinance, as is the Port. We urge Observer readers to contact their Supervisor and specifically request that the proposed 2012 San Francisco Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks General Obligation Bond make it explicitly clear that SFPUC may receive bond funds for expenditure at Lake Merced.

Jerry Cadagan is Co-founder of Committee to Save Lake Merced

June 2012

A caption for the above image.
We’re Really Not Making This Up

In our April Lake Merced update we jokingly invoked the name of humorist Dave Barry when we said that we “were not making it up” when SFPUC staff delayed taking a Lake Merced management proposal to its Commission’s March 27 meeting with the lame explanation that, “Staff needs more time to work with Recreation and Park staff on item.” We pointed out that staffs of the two agencies had supposedly been working on the issue since January 2007. But, it gets even better (and we’re really not making this up). On April 10, SFPUC staff released a revised draft of the five-page MOU in question saying that the revised draft would be brought to the Commission’s May 8 meeting, even though there was an April 24 meeting scheduled. Then, on April 20, SFPUC released a calendar explaining that the matter was not going to the April 24 meeting because it was “not ready for approval” at the April 24 meeting. Confused? So are we. It was ready on April 10, but then became “unready” on April 24. Go figure.

But a more serious problem is that the revised draft released on April 10 is no improvement over the draft that the Commission declined to approve on November 8, 2011. Then, Commissioners used words like “specificity” and “accountability” in asking staff to do better. Yet the most recent draft continues to lack either specificity or accountability, while using nebulous, ambiguous terms and phrases such as “recreational uses” (without defining the term); “agreed upon tasks” (without describing the tasks, or who agrees upon them or when); “the levels of operations and maintenance funding will be discussed and agreed upon by the General Managers of both SFPUC and RPD” (what happens if they don’t agree, assuming they ever get around to the discussion?); revenues received by Rec & Park will be used, “to support responsibilities related to Lake Merced” (without any provision requiring Rec & Park to account to anyone for how those revenues, currently $77,000 a year, are actually utilized).


But even all of that is not the real problem. The fundamental problem is that SFPUC and Rec & Park continue to insist that management at Lake Merced be a joint effort, or more accurately, a two-headed monster, to use the term in an October 2011 op-ed on the subject in the SF Chronicle."

But even all of that is not the real problem. The fundamental problem is that SFPUC and Rec & Park continue to insist that management at Lake Merced be a joint effort, or more accurately, a two-headed monster, to use the term in an October 2011 op-ed on the subject in the SF Chronicle. Two-headed monsters, or “two in a box management”, the term used by organizational experts, seldom work. The experts say that it might work in those rare instances where the two managers have mature management, mutual trust, and good communications, none of which are hallmarks of things at SFPUC or Rec & Park.

We encourage Observer readers to send a message to SFPUC Commissioners (email to Commission Secretary dhood @ and request that your email be given to the five Commissioners) insisting that SFPUC take over full management responsibility at Lake Merced. Point out that SFPUC owns the lake and surrounding area and that Rec & Park has done a very poor job since the limited delegation of responsibility to them back in 1950. Hopefully, by the time this is published, the current sorry draft MOU will have been posted on the SFPUC website ( and Observer readers can judge its inadequacy.

Jerry Cadagan, Co-founder, Committee to Save Lake Merced

May 2012


The March edition of the Observer included our update expressing frustration with the lack of progress in dealing with the 62 year-old problem of having two bureaucracies (SFPUC and SF REC & Park) jointly in charge of management at Lake Merced. We also expressed our frustration that the folks at SFPUC (the agency that owns the lake) were totally ignoring suggestions for solving the management issue, and ignoring our requests for status reports. And in March we reported that the management issue was supposed to go back to the Commission of SFPUC on March 27. Try to imagine our shock and dismay when a recent calendar issued by SFPUC staff moved the date back to April 24 with this astounding explanation: “Staff needs more time to work with Recreation and Park staff on item.”

Why is that astounding? Simply because staffs of both agencies were asked by the Board of Supervisors in early January 2007 to come up with a proposal to fix the management mess, and they were asked to report back to the Supervisors in 90 days. Absolutely nothing happened for over four years until a group of activists met with senior SFPUC staff in late 2010. Incredulously, we were told that the matter had “fallen through the cracks,” but they’d get something done by early 2011. In July 2011 staffs of the two agencies produced a draft MOU and held a public meeting to get comments. It was not well received by the public, to say the least. Back to the drawing boards, and in early November 2011 a slightly revised version of the proposed MOU was taken to the Commission of SFPUC. We activists objected strenuously saying that it didn’t deal with the evils of confused and muddled responsibilities, and lack of specificity and accountability. The SFPUC Commissioners apparently agreed as they declined to adopt the proposal. Back to the drawing boards, and the matter is then scheduled for the March 27 Commission meeting and later hastily withdrawn and rescheduled for April because, “staff needs more time to work with Recreation and Park staff on item.” This nonsense has been going on for more than five years and the staffs of the two agencies need more time to work on it? As columnist and humorist Dave Barry would say, “We’re not making this up”!

All this has to make one wonder if we are not witnessing the “Mother of All Turf Wars” with nothing more at stake than a few fragile egos in the upper echelons of Rec & Park and SFPUC.

Meanwhile, no one knows who is in charge at Lake Merced, things are a mess, and there hasn’t been a much-needed fishing concession at the lake since 1999. Please call or email Mayor Ed Lee (415 – 554-6141; and demand that he bang some heads together at SFPUC and Rec & Park and put one agency in full charge at Lake Merced. And that agency should be the owner of the lake – SFPUC.

Jerry Cadagan, Co-founder, Committee to Save Lake Merced

April 2012

Deafening Silence at Lake Merced
Jerry Cadagan

The December edition of the Observer expressed optimism that the Commissioners at the SF Public Utilities Commission might be close to abandoning the 60-year history of shared management responsibility at the lake with the Recreation & Park Dept. (A result of an unfortunate decision in 1950 by the Commissioners of the SFPUC to delegate limited and vague authority to Rec &Park.) Our optimism was prompted by the fact that in November, the Commissioners declined to adopt a staff proposal perpetuating the “two-headed monster” management structure. Shortly after that rejection, the Committee to Save Lake Merced and other activists submitted to the Commission and senior SFPUC staff a written proposal under which SFPUC would reclaim full management authority at the lake, with Rec & Park being given an advisory role only on recreational matters. It must be remembered that SFPUC owns the lake and has ultimate responsibility for its welfare.


We were shocked to learn that absolutely no effort has been made to replace the concession, despite the fact that lake levels rebounded in 2005 and fishermen now need a place to buy a license; rent a boat; and get bait, tackle and a snack.

It is saddening to report that neither SFPUC staff nor the Commissioners responded with comments on our proposal; nor did they acknowledge receiving it; nor have they responded to follow-up communications inquiring about the deafening silence.

It would be helpful here to give a rather dramatic example of why we believe Rec & Park no longer should have any direct responsibilities, and SFPUC should take full charge. The single biggest need for years at the lake is a fishing concession. The last concessionaire pulled out in 1999. We recently did a records request of Rec & Park to determine what it has done in the intervening thirteen (13) years to find a new concessionaire. We were shocked to learn that absolutely no effort has been made to replace the concession, despite the fact that lake levels rebounded in 2005 and fishermen now need a place to buy a license; rent a boat; and get bait, tackle and a snack.

Despite its refusal to talk to us, SFPUC staff has indicated that it intends to take another management proposal to its Commission on March 27. We fear it again will perpetuate the two-headed monster, effectively giving Rec & Park another 13 years to find a fishing concession. Please call SFPUC GM Ed Harrington at (415) 554-3155 and email the SFPUC Commissioners c/o Mhoush [at] and ask that SFPUC take back full management responsibility at Lake Merced, and make the first order of business retaining a fishing concessionaire.

Jerry Cadagan co-founded Committee to Save Lake Merced

March 2012

Rowers on Lake Merced
Rowers prepare to set the boat on the water at Lake Merced
SF PUC Declines Rec & Park's Lake Merced Deal

Is Joint Management With Rec & Park Off the Table?

The October edition of the Observer had a detailed story describing the problems at Lake Merced. The heart of those problems is that for years, the lake has been the subject of a failed management system under which the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and the SF Recreation and Park Department (RPD) shared unclear management responsibilities, resulting in what a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle called a "two -headed monster." SFPUC owns the lake and surrounding lands, and Lake Merced activists have long believed that SFPUC should be the sole manager.

Recently, staff at SFPUC submitted to the five Commissioners of the agency a proposed Memorandum of Understanding with RPD that did no more than perpetuate the two-headed monster. At its November 8 meeting, the SFPUC Commissioners declined to approve the MOU. That was the first sign in many years that the top people at SFPUC may be willing to step up to the plate and fulfill the agency's responsibility to properly manage the lake.

Encouraged by the SFPUC Commissioners' refusal to perpetuate the two-headed monster, Lake Merced activists have submitted to the Commission a proposal under which SFPUC would be the sole manager at the lake (with the exception of Harding Park golf and RPD's successful Natural Areas Program), but would receive advice from RPD on recreational matters, and at SFPUC's option, RPD might manage specific recreational programs.

It is hoped that at some point in the near future the Commissioners at SFPUC will act on the recommendation of the citizen activists who know Lake Merced the best.

Jerry Cadagan is a long-time Lake Merced advocate.

December 2011

Lake Merced

For years there has been media coverage of various problems and issues at Lake Merced, including the water level crisis of the 80s and 90's, the disrepair of docks, piers and buildings, the departure in 1999 of the last fishing concession, and the recent failed effort to find someone to invest millions of dollars in the Boathouse building and operate a "destination" restaurant. But despite considerable publicity over the years, the public is generally unfamiliar with the ownership and management arrangements (and problems) at the lake.

The Lake Merced Tract (the lake and surrounding land) is owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), having been acquired from the Spring Valley Water Company in 1930. In 1950 SFPUC made a serious mistake by passing a resolution conferring upon the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) the right to occupy the tract "for park and recreational purposes" and to "grant concessions or leases….for the use and patronage of the public." That was the extent of the detail about what RPD's actual responsibilities and duties would be. There was no detailed memorandum of agreement or understanding between the two agencies.

The joint management arrangement simply has not worked. When the water level crisis became severe, the two agencies did virtually nothing. Aggressive activists forged a solution. Infrastructure is in a very serious state of disrepair. There has been no fishing concession since 1999.

On March 23, 2005 the San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst released an exhaustive audit of SFPUC's operations1.

Buried in Chapter 12 was a recommendation that the two agencies should develop a Memorandum of Understanding as "an initial step in identifying responsibility for and solutions to the Lake Merced land and property management." SFPUC's response to the audit report simply said that the agency agreed. It may have agreed, but it did not act.

Then in January 2007 the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution ( reciting that SFPUC had made a commitment to manage the tract and to obtain and allocate the resources to do so. The resolution urged the agencies to work together to modify the terms of the 1950 resolution. Between January 2007 and May 2010 SFPUC had four consultants produce a 187 page Lake Merced Watershed Report that cost the SFPUC rate payers $588,434. ( At page 10 the Watershed Report says the intent of the Board's resolution was "to transfer primary responsibility for management of the lands surrounding the lake back to the SFPUC." The Board's resolution requested a report back in 90 days. That did not happen. Instead, some 1,180 days later the agencies did release a draft Memorandum of Understanding which, incredulously, essentially left the confusing, muddled co-management situation in place. At a public meeting in July, ably reported on by Jonathan Farrell in the September issue of the Westside Observer, the public expressed dismay over the fact that nothing was going to change.

Attempting to justify RPD's continued involvement, SFPUC staff has made vague statements to the effect that RPD's experience in recreational matters is needed at the lake. There are significant problems with that line of reasoning. First, RPD has done nothing at the lake of late that would be thought of as enhancing recreation. What it has not done is the only thing that has been needed since 1999 — replacing the essential fishing concession which rented boats and sold fishing licenses, tackle, bait and snacks at the lake. Second, the other recreational activities at the lake are well-handled by participants and volunteers. The crew, sailing and Dragon Boat programs are supported by local high schools, the Dolphin Club and other organizations that provide the needed supervision, coaching and equipment. For SFPUC to suggest that it doesn't have the skill and expertise to oversee recreational matters at the lake is disingenuous. Surely an organization currently involved in administering billions of dollars of contracts in the Hetch Hetchy rebuild should be capable of finding someone to run a simple fishing concession.

SFPUC's protestation that it has no experience in recreational matters is beyond disingenuous. It has an ongoing program of docent-led outdoor excursions for hikers, bicyclists and equestrians along the Fifield-Cahill Trail on the San Francisco peninsula. It issues permits for private events such as weddings at its Pulgas Water Temple on the peninsula. And just recently, SFPUC received kudos in a Huffington Post story about an Earth Stewards program co-sponsored by SFPUC involving at-risk young adults from SF working in and enjoying both the Peninsula and Hetch Hetchy watersheds.

What is the point of all this? Simply that there has been a total lack of accountability at the lake for years. Ask RPD about the dilapidated Boathouse and they'll say, "Ask SFPUC." Ask SFPUC why fish aren't stocked regularly and they'll say, "Ask RPD." An appropriate division of responsibility would be for RPD to retain full responsibility for Harding golf and the Natural Areas Program. SFPUC could contract with RPD for gardening services. SFPUC should be responsible for everything else, particularly the deplorable infrastructure. Then we might have some accountability. That could be accomplished by a simple revision to the ambiguous 1950 resolution. If you agree call Mayor Lee (554-6141), Supervisor Elsbernd (554-6516) and SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington (554-3155) and tell them.

I am appreciative that the Westside Observer is giving me some space to shed some light on the subject. In a nutshell, the problem is confused responsibilities, resulting in a lack of accountability.

Jerry Cadagan co-founded the Committee to Save Lake Merced in 1993.


October 2011

Lake Merced: Irate Citizens Give PUC Bureaucrats No Respect

Over 50 people showed up at the Harding Park Golf Course Clubhouse on July 19 to listen to Steve Ritchie, Assistant General Manager of Water Enterprises for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. His presence was well-received by the audience, as he knows many in the community. Residents and community groups have expressed skepticism about the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission plan to extend the conservatorship responsibilities of Lake Merced to the SF Recreation & Parks Department.

Yet when several in the audience, like Jerry Cadagan, were critical of Rec. & Park's continued conservatorship of Lake Merced, Ritchie seemed to become reserved and eager to finish the meeting quickly.

Cadagan established one of the first local groups back in 1993 concerned about Lake Merced's future and care. He fears that since that time not much has changed for the better. He was among the most vocal at the meeting, and asked most of the critical questions.

Precise details about how much money is or was appropriated for repairs were not clear. Ritchie said that the Boathouse will be repaired, and a work schedule will be in place by the fall of 2011. Cadagan and others were skeptical and questioned the actual figures in the funding, causing obvious uneasiness in the flow of answers from Ritchie and others speaking on behalf of Rec. & Park.

Most of the criticism focused on the fact that, apart from the golf course and new clubhouse, most of the recreational venues around Lake Merced are poorly maintained.

The lake itself needs more attention. Water levels are receding and algae are multiplying. Ritchie noted that the water levels in the lake have been a long-standing issue. Water and environmental issues are SF PUC's responsibility.

Residents noted that trees are withering and need of more care. Dead trees are cut down and then simply left to decompose along the edges of the lake.

Rec. & Park representatives Lev Kushner and Lisa Wayne were among the other officials present at the meeting. They pointed out that the City is struggling to meet maintenance costs. In addition to overseeing the waterfront of the lake, Rec. & Park must manage over 1100 acres of Golden Gate Park as well as other neighborhood parks in the City. Budgets in every division and department are limited.

Residents told Ritchie that workers from Rec. & Park seem absent in attending to the needs of over 200 acres of lake, marsh and park, but that the golf course gets lots of attention since its upgrade to PGA status more than six years ago. Some said the reason why the golf course and its clubhouse got more attention over the Boathouse and fishing docks was because the sport of golf is a moneymaker.

The SF PUC has jurisdiction over the lake as a water resource and must work with not only San Francisco, but also adjacent Daly City in its use and care. Ritchie reassured the audience that attention to the water levels, as well as erosion issues, are being addressed on an on-going basis.

Even though recreation use has increased, the quality of the lake's recreation facilities seem to be much less than what it was in previous years. Hippo Lau said, after the meeting, that "fishing on the lake used to be shoulder to shoulder. It used to be the lake, a choice spot, to fish at in the 1950s and '60s. Over the years the lake has gone down in quality and maintenance." Kelly Zito in the SF Chronicle observed. "Many of those docks are rotting under water. Fish stocks hover well below historical levels," Zito's article noted.

Most were concerned that the Memorandum of Understanding regarding Lake Merced was not complete, and that most of the handouts were drafts still in process.They expressed concerns about the political maneuvering between the City and the SF PUC, the MOU created decades ago will be undermined and rendered meaningless.

The MOU document governing the use and maintenance of Lake Merced is a 1950 era resolution. The 60 year old document notes that the SFPUC adopted Resolution No. 10,435 giving the Rec. & Park Dept. the right to "occupy, use and improve, for park and recreational purposes" the entire Tract, along with the right to grant concessions or leases.

It is the leasing and use of the lake and surrounding acreage that worries some residents. They fear Rec. & Park will "privatize" the lake as a way to create revenue, and limit public access in favor of events and venues that make money.

There was general agreement among those attending the meeting that the SF PUC will be unable to hold Rec. & Park accountable if their joint conservatorship of the Lake Merced area continues.

Jonathan Farrell is a freelance San Francisco journalist.

September 2011

At Lake Merced rowing practice, kids learn basic skills like teamwork and coordination while paving a pathway to the best colleges. Conditions are increasingly dangerous at the docks, but City Hall shows no interest while nearby golfers soak up the lake's water.
Lake Merced and the Boathouse

Rowers Get the Short End of the Stick

A vital sport for kids, and affordable recreation for folks of all ages, gets no respect from City Hall.

You don’t have to ask the kids who get up before dawn to go to rowing practice what they did last night—they went to bed early. Literally hundreds of young people from around the city show up—ready to row—at dawn. Their commitment is ignored by City officials.

Rowing has been described as the “ultimate team sport” because each rower’s motions must harmonize with the others to create a smooth, synchronous flow. Starting out with exercises to warm-up, teams of four to eight boys or girls hoist the heavy boats and carefully maneuver them past the rickety and decaying ramp to the dock, adroitly planting them in what remains of Lake Merced. Then in a few minutes they’re off, speeding across the water until they become a mere speck in the distance. The boys and girls who take part in the supervised programs all agree on one thing—it’s worth the effort.

rowing on the lake

“It’s such a thrill to be out on the water working shoulder to shoulder with my teammates,” said one novice as the sun rose behind him, “I look forward to this day all week.” Programs sponsored by the Pacific Rowing Club are open to high school students of any age. Known as “novices” these are students who have not yet participated in a regatta. Rowing is a pathway to the best colleges in the country. Besides being a full-body, low-impact aerobic workout involving all the body’s major muscle groups, it is a valuable skill, prized by ivy league colleges.

Mary Allen
Mary Allen has been rowing 20 years at the
SF Rowing Club

But rowing is not just for kids. At 75, Mary Allen rows three days a week. She is a very active senior, who has been rowing on Lake Merced for over 20 years. She navigates the decrepit docks and expertly deposits her boat in the water, mounts the bobbing vessel from the lurching dock, then rows the four mile course. Refreshed from her adventure, she repeats the process backwards until the “shell” is safely back in its cradle. Mary also gives lessons to students and donates her spare time to the SF Rowing Club. “It keeps me in great shape,” she says. The club is affordable, at about $250 per year, allowing unlimited access to any of the club’s 14 boats.

Boathouse Languishes in Shameful Neglect

girls lift boat on old docks
Young women lift the boats above their heads
up rickedy steps where one sistep could mean

The Boathouse has an uncertain future. It houses the programs of the Pacific Rowing Club, the SF Rowing Club, St. Ignatius Crew, South End Rowing Club and the Dolphin Club in its subterranean levels. The restaurant above has been vacant for over three years and the SF Recreation and Park Department plans to demolish the building, but no concrete proposal for a replacement project has been adopted. This has the coaches wondering where they will relocate their services.

“The lake itself is in better shape than it was ten years ago,” says Dick Allen, a stalwart and former Planning Commissioner. “It has regained some of its previous level. It is at about 25 feet now, whereas it had been at 14 feet at its lowest point, but it took a lawsuit and political will to force the City to return the lake to its current level.” The lawsuit against the City’s golf courses, Daly City, and San Mateo County stopped the unmetered draining of the lake. Allen now serves on the SF PUC’s Lake Merced Task Force.

carrying boat

One of those who expended considerable political capital to restore the lake was former Supervisor Tony Hall. He notes that the lake was at 27 to 28 feet when he left office, the highest level in 40 years, in keeping with a campaign promise. He blames the current administration, including the current District supervisor, for neglecting what could and should be the best family recreation facility in San Francisco. “With no active supervision, Rec and Park has allowed the boathouse and the docks to slip into disrepair,” Hall said. “The Boathouse and its boating and fishing facilities should have been repaired or put out to bid at the same time as the Harding Park Golf Course rebuild. It could be open and operating safely right now if my successor followed through with the Harding Park and Lake Merced improvements that I initiated. Rec and Park’s current ruse—“to get community input”—is just a stalling tactic, another smoke-screen for delay, just like the stables. We’ve studied the heck out of this and there’s been plenty of community input. I’m concerned about what will happen to the rowing clubs if the plan to demolish the Boathouse Restaurant is carried out. Since there is no plan for the rebuild and relocation of these clubs that provide such a valuable service, I fear the community we will lose a real treasure.”

Lake Merced is an emergency source of drinking water and fire fighting. Rec and Park manages the recreational areas of the Lake under a 1950 agreement with the SF Public Utilities Commission, which manages the water in the Lake.

In the past, Lake Merced was replenished by storm water runoff from the surrounding watershed. But new development has depleted the runoff and the underlying aquifer. Daly City, SF and San Bruno, as well as several golf courses, cemeteries, and private users, rely on groundwater extracted from the Westside Basin for drinking and irrigation. As more groundwater is pumped from deeper aquifers to meet growing water needs, water in the shallow aquifer that is a part of Lake Merced now flows towards San Mateo County. Global warming has also slowed stormwater flows to the shallow aquifer, which are now, for the most part, routed to the Ocean or to the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Time is running out for the rowers, and they deserve some help from City Hall.

July 2011

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