Lake History

1964 Lake Management Formed

Big Bear Lake in 1956

In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, the Southern California area was in the midst of a rather long and extensive drought. Due to extremely large demands on water from Big Bear Lake for irrigation in the San Bernardino/Redlands area Big Bear Lake had been reduced to little more than a large “mud puddle”.

While it was generally agreed that the Dam was originally constructed to provide irrigation water to downhill users, the extensive recreational community of Big Bear Lake decided in 1964 to attempt to gain control of Big Bear Lake. The main difficulty lay in the fact that an irrigation reservoir, by its nature, experiences drastic changes in the lake level to meet the irrigation needs downstream; whereas, the recreational interests on the lake required a reasonably stable lake level.

In 1964, by an overwhelming vote, the people of Big Bear Lake created the MWD with the express purpose of attempting to stabilize the level of Big Bear Lake. Shortly thereafter, the original Board of Directors of the MWD decided that the best approach would be to condemn the Lake. What ensued was a thirteen year legal battle which finally led to an out of court settlement in early 1977. The final settlement can be broken down into two parts: the first being the acquisition of the real property around and under Big Bear Lake; and the second being the resolution of the use of water in Bear Creek.

1977 - Dam and Lake Bottom Purchased

Spillway gates open for flood control release Feb. 1995

In January of 1977, for a purchase price of $4,700,000, the MWD acquired title to the dam, the Lake bottom lying beneath the Lake and the surface recreation rights to Big Bear Lake. It was necessary to acquire these properties so that the District could properly manage the environment of the Lake, as well as the Lake level. As part of the purchase, the District issued promissory notes in the amount of $1,700,000. These notes were to be repaid out of the property tax revenues of the District. In 1978, however, Proposition 13 reduced the District's property tax revenue by over 60%. This caused the District to default on the notes and force the creation of an alternate means to complete the purchase of the Lake. After many public meetings and a mail-in property owners ballot, the Big Bear Municipal Water District established an assessment district which levied an assessment on all land in the valley to raise the needed funds. The assessment proceedings were completed in the summer of 1981 and the acquisition was finalized.

With regard to the water rights, all parties to the original lawsuit agreed to a stipulated judgment in the adjudication of the water rights. The judgment established a physical solution to the water rights dispute. The physical solution is a method wherein the Municipal Water District can maintain water in the Lake while, at the same time, the irrigation interests downstream can be satisfied. (In-Lieu). In practice, each year Bear Valley Mutual Water Company determines the irrigation needs downstream and estimates the demand on Big Bear Lake to meet these needs. The MWD then has the option of either supplying this needed water from another source (mainly the State Water Project and the Upper Santa Ana groundwater basin) or releasing the water from the Lake. In this manner, the District can maintain the Lake at an elevation significantly above its historical level.

The District did not acquire the water rights in Bear Creek. The value of the water rights in the early 1970's was determined to be a major expenditure beyond the financial capability of the District at that time. In addition, it was felt that there was no need to acquire more than was actually needed to maintain the recreational benefits of the Lake.

Bear Valley Dam

First Bear Valley Dam under construction 1884

Fishing off the old dam before construction of 1912 Eastwood Dam

The first Bear Valley Dam was constructed in 1884 at a cost of $75,000. It was built to create a reservoir for downstream irrigation uses in Redlands, resulting in the largest man-made body of water in the world at the time. When Frank E. Brown engineered this dam, he couldn't have possibly envisioned the role Big Bear Lake would play in the future development of the surrounding mountain communities.

Following the completion of this first dam, the valley experienced many years of above average snowfall and plans were made to create an even larger storage reservoir. This included construction of a 65 foot high rock-filled dam, located 300 feet downstream from the original dam. However this project ended in bankruptcy and in 1909 new designs were considered. In 1910, Bear Valley Mutual Water Company retained an engineer to design and oversee the construction of the current concrete dam.

The storage capacity of the newly created Lake was 25,000 acre feet (one acre foot is enough water for a family of four for one year). Many engineers claimed that this single arch granite dam would not hold.

Sometime later, those same doubting engineers declared it "The Eighth Wonder of the World". This dam is still generally intact, but is usually submerged beneath the higher 1912 dam.

1912 Multi-arch dam under construction

Bear Valley Dam prior to addition of highway in 1924

Original rock dam is visible during extremely low lake levels

The present multiple arch dam was built from 1910-1912 at a cost of $138,000 and is located about 100 yards downstream from the Old Bear Valley Dam. The top of the arches is 72 feet 4 inches from the Lake bottom and its construction nearly tripled the storage of the reservoir to 73,000 acre feet. In 1924, a highway bridge was constructed over the top of the buttresses. This road is now part of State Route 18.


Bear Valley Dam as it exists today