Despite its humble beginnings, the historic Old Big Bear Valley Dam still exists today. Originally pieced together with rock from surrounding hillsides and a single granite arch, the dam was created to provide water for agriculture farming in the area. Its historical significance to the region tells a story of strength, economic growth and water in the upper Santa Ana River Watershed.
A VALLEY OF BEARS
In the late 1800s, there wasn’t much in what is now known as Big Bear. At the time, the mountain still boasted a healthy population of its namesake grizzly bear population, which were eventually hunted into extinction by 1906, and even the Big Bear Lake that we recognize today was not in existence. The only lake in the area was Baldwin Lake, which is now located east of Big Bear Lake.
When a Riverside landowner inadvertently ended up in the San Bernardino mountains in hot pursuit of horse thieves, he named it Bear Valley due to the abundance of grizzly bears roaming the area.
After Benjamin Wilson blessed Big Bear with its name in 1845, the high mountain valley also entertained a steady stream of visitors when gold was discovered in 1855. But it was not until 1884, when a Redlands farmer, named Frank Brown, designed and built a dam that is now known as the Old Big Bear Valley Dam.
AN ENGINEERING TRIUMPH
The impetus behind the dam was to create a reservoir to irrigate citrus crops in the Redlands area. Brown designed a single-arch granite dam, which was initially dismissed by engineers who claimed there was no way it would hold. But the $75,000 dam was constructed over the marsh-covered meadows of Big Bear Valley and once the snowmelt poured in, it formed what was once the world’s largest man-made lake.
And when the dam held despite the engineer’s pessimism, they called it “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” This original dam held back about 25,000-acre feet of water. Today the old dam is dwarfed by its newer, and 20-foot taller neighbor to the west. The newer dam, which was commissioned by the Bear Valley Mutual Water Company (BVMWC), and built in 1912, can hold back roughly 73,000-acre feet of water. In 1924 the dam was topped with a bridge and turned into what is now State Route 18.
A SHRINKING LAKE
In the beginning large amounts of water were often released from Big Bear Lake for irrigation purposes. Since there were no regulations, the lake levels varied greatly. In 1996, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California agreed to preserve the lake water by providing irrigation from other sources. Today, lake levels have remained much more stable.
IRRIGATION OR RECREATION?
Although Big Bear Lake was originally created to supply water for the San Bernardino and Redlands farms, during the decade between the 1950s and 1960s the area became water battleground. The lake had dwindled down to what was described as “barely a puddle,” according to the BVMWC. Farmers wanted the water for their crops and locals wanted the water to prop up the recreational needs of Big Bear. In 1977, Big Bear Municipal Water District (BBMWD) acquired rights to the dam and the surface water to Big Bear Lake.
Regarding water rights? In short, BBMWD maintains water in the lake while irrigation interests are still met. Today, SBVMWC can determine the irrigation needs downstream and then estimate the demand to meet the water company’s needs. The BBMWD can then deem whether they need to supply the water from another source, such as the Upper Santa Ana Groundwater Basin or release it from Big Bear Lake. Water that flows downstream along the Santa Ana River can eventually seep into the groundwater supply and be used for drinking water.
Today, visitors to Big Bear enjoy a picturesque lake with boats, jet skis and literal happy campers excited to take advantage of Southern California’s mountains and watershed.
References: 1. Big Bear Municipal Water District: Lake History. http://www.bbmwd.com/lake-history/. Accessed January 27, 2019. 2. The Big Bear History Site: Big Bear’s Eastwood Dam; Album: Big Bear Lake Dam. http://www.bigbearhistorysite.com/big-bear-historical-articles/the-lake-the-dams/big-bear-lake-dam/. Accessed January 27, 2019. 3. Big Bear Valley Historical Society: Big Bear Valley Dams. https://bigbearhistory.org/big-bear-history/big-bear-valley-dams/. Accessed January 27, 2019. Big Bear Municipal Water District cannot guaranty the accuracy of text contained within the post.