In-Lieu Progam

Lake Stabilization

In-Lieu Water Program

Following the Big Bear Municipal Water District’s (District) formation in 1964, there was more than a decade of litigation and negotiation over the District’s desire to gain control of Big Bear Lake from Bear Valley Mutual Water Company (Mutual). The 1977 Judgment was executed to make it possible for the District to retain water in the Lake. Under the terms of this judgment, the District purchased from Mutual, the Lake bottom, Bear Valley Dam and the right to utilize and manage the surface of Big Bear Lake for recreation and wildlife. In addition to controlling the Lake level, surface management included the transfer of the right, title and interest to oversee the seventeen commercial landing permits, residential dock licenses, revenue activities on Big Bear Lake and various leases and properties.

The District was unable to purchase the water rights. They remained with Mutual and the District became obligated to provide the water reasonably necessary to meet the beneficial use requirements of Mutual’s stockholders, not to exceed 65,000 acre feet of water in any ten year period. This water can be in the form of Lake releases or can be provided from other sources “in lieu” of Lake releases. Hence, the Lake stabilization program is commonly referred to as the “In-Lieu Water Program”. The most common sources of in-lieu water have historically been the State Water Project and wells in San Bernardino and Redlands.

When Mutual constructed the original Bear Valley Dam in 1884, it was to create a reservoir to meet the irrigation needs of the downstream growers. The Judgment was crafted to ensure that those needs would continue to be met under the District’s management. However, in recent years many of the orange groves have been converted to residential housing developments and commercial complexes, changing some of the water use from agriculture to domestic. When the District was faced with repairs to the Bear Valley Dam in 1986, a court action was filed against Mutual challenging the change from irrigation to domestic use and asking that Mutual be required to pay for some of the repairs to the dam. The District was unsuccessful on both issues.

Over the years, the District has implemented several management strategies to maintain the level of the Lake in the most cost-effective manner possible. However, none were as dependable as the 1996 water purchase agreement with San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District (Valley District). This agreement provides a single reliable source for all in-lieu water and negates the need to pursue any other in-lieu alternatives. Valley District has the option to provide the water from the State Water Project or any other available sources authorized under the Judgment. For an annual payment, the District is guaranteed that when the Lake is at specified levels, no water will be released to meet the downstream water needs. With this agreement, the district has achieved its mission of Lake stabilization.

The Judgment directed that the in-lieu water program be monitored through a series of accounts that are managed by the Big Bear Watermaster Committee. The three-member committee consists of one representative from each of the three member agencies: Big Bear Municipal Water District, Bear Valley Mutual Water Company and San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District. This is a committee whose sole responsibility is to monitor the “physical solution” set forth in the Judgment. The basic premise behind the physical solution is the comparison of the District’s actual Lake management to Mutual’s historic management. The District is then responsible for making up any net ground water deficiency in the San Bernardino basin which may occur as a result of maintaining a higher Lake level than would have occurred under Mutual’s operations. The amount of the deficiency or surplus is maintained in the basin make-up water account (commonly referred to as “basin compensation account”). A number of other accounting mechanisms are in place to calculate totals for Lake releases, inflow, spills, evaporation, wastewater export and other related data. An annual Watermaster report is prepared documenting the annual accounting procedures.


In 2000, because of the concern for potential “overtopping” of the Bear Valley Dam during major storm events, the Watermaster Committee agreed that the following policy would be used to help protect against damage to lakefront property when the Lake is full:
During a flood event or impending storm event, Big Bear Municipal Water District shall have the authority to make discretionary Lake releases when the Lake is in the top three feet, even when the District has no water in its Lake account. Bear Valley Mutual Water Company shall be notified of all flood control releases made under this policy along with other interested parties. If the Lake is more than three feet below full, the District shall coordinate flood control releases with Bear Valley Mutual Water Company prior to implementation. All Big Bear Watermaster accounting procedures shall remain the same.

In 2005, an additional winter storm release policy was approved by the District. It authorizes that the Lake be maintained at 1’ below full from December 31 through March 31. This policy was developed to improve the District’s release capabilities in the event of a major storm event during those months. This policy will result in Lake releases that were not contemplated in the 1996 water contract, and will reduce the amount of water available for release to Mutual under the District’s Lake Release Policy. This, in turn, increases the amount of in-lieu water delivered by Muni. The average annual increase in in-lieu deliveries is estimated at 80 acre feet, and the District agreed to pay Muni an additional $12,000 each year beginning on July 1, 2006. This amount will be increased annually using the same escalation formula as for the original contract payment.


Since 1979, the District has had a water supply contract with Snow Summit ski resort, allowing them to withdraw up to 500 AF of Lake water for snowmaking each ski season. Negotiations to renew the contract in 1994 were unsuccessful and a one-year interim agreement was signed. In July 1995, a new fifteen-year contract was approved. Since 1988, a similar contract has been in place with Bear Mountain Ski Resort, allowing them to also withdraw up to 500 acre feet. In 2002, the two ski corporations became one and are now owned and operated Snow Summit, Inc. (Summit). The two contracts were combined into one in 2006 and the amount of water authorized for withdrawal from the Lake was revised. The new formula allows Summit to withdraw from Big Bear Lake 11,000 acre feet of water in any 10-year rolling period, not to exceed 1,300 acre feet in any single year. The Big Bear Watermaster Committee accounting procedures calculate that one-half of the water taken returns to the Lake. On average, if all water is taken, the net reduction in the Lake’s surface area is only about 33 acres, or 1% of the total surface area.

Although the physical solution in the 1977 Judgment is silent on the issue of the District using water from its Lake Account for any purpose, Mutual has allowed the use of Lake water for snowmaking. The District has an arrangement with Mutual to allow the taking of Lake water for snowmaking even when the District has no water in its Lake Account. Mutual has historically agreed to advance water to the District for this purpose so long as it is returned to Mutual’s account in either of two ways: by a credit of return flows from snowmaking, and by the purchase of in-lieu water. The original fifteen-year Advance of Water Contract with Mutual expired in 1994, and a new one-year contract was signed in 1995 and renewed for an additional year in 1996. In 1997, no advance was required and a two-year agreement was signed for the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 ski seasons.
In 2000, Mutual and the District agreed upon an accounting procedure for future advances of water by Mutual. Instead of requiring a new agreement, the accounting procedure was approved by the Watermaster Committee and documented in the annual report for calendar year 2000, with an effective date of January 1, 2001. It continues to involve repayment of the water with in-lieu water or lake water, however, Mutual may call for that water at any time in the future. Previously, the water had to be repaid in the first year of deliveries following the advance. This procedure gives the District a dependable water supply for the ski areas and also gives Mutual the ability to call for the water when it is needed the most.