The Santa Margarita River

Current and Historical News
Stream Gauges


The Fallbrook area is fortunate to have two rivers that are nearly completely in their natural state over most of their courses: The Santa Margarita River (SMR) and the San Luis Rey River. The SMR is by far the wildest, grandest, most scenic, and most accessible by the public of the two, with large portions of it protected. Unfortunately, the San Luis Rey River near Fallbrook is entirely private property, with development all along it. Perhaps some day some of the land along it will be acquired for conservation and public enjoyment.

The SMR is formed by the junction of Murrieta Creek and the Temecula River just west of I-15 in Temecula, just south of SR79 South. It immediately cuts a beautiful gorge through the southern end of the Santa Ana Mountains. The gorge is protected by the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve. Although the Reserve is normally closed to the public, the Friends of the Santa Margarita River sponsor a public walk to the gorge once a year, and the Reserve is currently training docents that will allow more frequent public access.

The gorge is the upper canyon of the river, ending below Gavilan Mountain. Below this point, the SMR and its tributaries Sandia Creek and De Luz Creek have carved a large bowl into the Santa Ana Mountains. The bowl has clearly-delineated steep sides north at the Santa Rosa Plateau and west at the Santa Margarita Mountains. A less steep cliff bounds the bowl on the south at Fallbrook, just north of Mission Road. The eastern side of the bowl is less clearly defined, being spread out over a larger area.

This lower canyon is widely considered the most beautiful spot in the Fallbrook area, with expansive scenic views of a pastoral community and surrounding mountains. There is a public hiking trail along much of its course here.

Below De Luz Creek, the SMR has mostly finished its erosion, creating a large floodplain as it flows through Camp Pendleton. The River is mostly protected there as well by the Marines.

The SMR, along with neighboring open land, is the largest regional ecosystem near the coast south of the Santa Monica Mountains. About 345,000 acres, 539 square miles, are contained in the river corridor, the adjacent Cleveland National Forest, the Santa Rosa Plateau, and Camp Pendleton.

Current and Historical News

1880s. Railroad tracks laid from the coast to Temecula along the SMR in 1882 and 1883. The first train traverses the SMR canyon on 9/13/1883. The tracks wash out on 2/15/1884; the line was rebuilt, and service resumed in 1885.

1887. Fallbrook Irrigation District organized to bring water from the Santa Margarita River. Fallbrook Water and Power Co. surveyed for a dam and an aqueduct (not built).

1890s. Sante Fe builds a new line along the coast due to repeated washouts of inland track.

1916-7. Floods permanently close railroad station near De Luz. Railroad train stranded in Temecula Canyon when tracks washed out. A Pasadena house mover salvaged the equipment and laid temporary track down Fallbrook's Main Street for the train.

1924. Fallbrook Irrigation District announces plans for dam on the Santa Margarita River, 167' high, with the reservoir covering about 585 acres (not built).

1926. Owners of the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores (now known as Camp Pendleton) sued to limit the amount of water that Walter Vail could take from the upper SMR basin.

1932. Santa Margarita Rancho agreed to let the Fallbrook Utility District pump water from the river sands.

1934. Fallbrook Irrigation District votes to go ahead with proposed Lippicott Dam on the Santa Margarita River, and asks the feds for $2,366,701 (not built). The request was denied.

1937. Water pumped from Santa Margarita River by FPUD.

~1940. The 1926 suit was settled. Lower SMR basin water users awarded 2/3 of the water flow, and upper basin water users granted 1/3.

1948. FPUD granted permit for 1800 acre-feet of water from the Santa Margarita River granted. Walter Vail builds a dam to create Vail Lake.

1949. FPUD and Camp Pendleton agree to jointly build a dam on the SMR.

1951. Permit for another 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Santa Margarita River granted. U.S. sues FPUD and Vail over water rights on Santa Margarita River.

1950s. The Fallbrook Public Utility District (FPUD) purchases 1200 acres along the SMR from Camp Pendleton to Riverside County to use as a reservoir by building two dams.

1966. In response to the 1951 suit, an independent water master was appointed by a federal judge to manage the watershed.

1967. One of the longest, most involved and most expensive water rights litigations ends with an agreement between FPUD and the U.S. Navy giving FPUD 40% of the water from the lower basin of the Santa Margarita River and the Navy 60%.

1968. FPUD and Camp Pendleton announce plans to jointly build two dams on the SMR, the Santa Margarita Project.

1984. FPUD abandons plans to build two dams on the SMR due to environmental opposition.

Sources for the historical news. The Santa Margarita River: Refuge in an Urbanizing Land, by Friends of the Santa Margarita River; NCT 5/19/00, B1, B8; Historical Timeline for Fallbrook, CA Area.

5/2/00. The Fallbrook Land Conservancy (FLC), the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy have begun discussions with FPUD to purchase over 600 acres out of the 1200 acres owned by FPUD. The land would be preserved as natural habitat. Funds for the purchase will come from the $3 billion bond issues passed in the 3/7/00 election. (However, see negotiations on hold)

FPUD Manager Keith Lewinger said that sale could include about 3/4 of the 1200 acres.

The FLC found that the current price for similar property ranges from $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. However, Lewinger is pushing not only for a higher price, but says "Our desire is to see a portion of the land sold as being developable", in order to obtain a higher price.

FPUD is determining which parts should be held for sale to a developer, which probably includes land above an elevation of ~500'. A staff report will take several months to complete.

Source: NCT 5/2/00, B1, B4.

5/19/00. The Rancho California Water District and Camp Pendleton finally settle the 1951 suit. The District is required to guarantee an amount of water flow at the Temecula Gorge. The amount is set each month, and depends on the current year's rainfall. (NCT 5/19/00, B1)

6/1/00. Griffith Wildlife Biology has placed two cowbird traps on FPUD property, one at the Sandia Creek confluence with the SMR and one at Willow Glen Road. The traps will operate for a month, and are mitigation for a pipeline being installed along the lower SMR in Camp Pendleton. The cowbird lays eggs in other bird's nest, including that of the endangered least Bell's vireo. Griffith has operated similar traps in Camp Pendleton since 1987.

Arundo removal along the upper SMR will also be done as additional mitigation.

Quote of the day from Arne Gunnarsson, who was the only FPUD director to vote against authorizing the traps:

I think the cowbird has a right to be there as well as that stupid vireo.
Arne also "expressed unhappiness with the continual spending of money for environmental causes".

Source: VN 6/1/00, A5.

~8/1/00. Negotiations for the FLC to purchase some of the SMR land owned by FPUD are on hold while FPUD explores the restrictions imposed by their agreements with Camp Pendleton to use the FPUD land as mitigation for Camp Pendleton. (11/6/00 email from Wallace Tucker)

Stream Gauges


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Copyright © 2000-2001 by Tom Chester.
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Last update: 20 September 2001.