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State official says Bonita dam is unsafe, nearby residents in jeopardy

The dam was built in 1888 and flooded over in 1916
Posted: 10:08 PM, Sep 28, 2016
Updated: 2016-09-29 05:08:41Z
The Sweetwater Dam in Bonita is unsafe and people living downstream are in jeopardy.  That’s according to the Director of California’s Division of Safety of Dams who flew down to San Diego Wednesday from Sacramento to address the Sweetwater Authority Board of Directors, which recently voted to not fund repairs to the dam.
 
“The problem is the spillway, which actually safely passes the flow, is not big enough,” said David Gutierrez, director of the division.
 
The dam was built in 1888 and flooded over in 1916.  Eight people were killed.  
 
Gutierrez told 10News the design of the dam is flawed and the spillway needs to be focused more towards the center of the dam.  He traveled from his Sacramento office Wednesday to address the board directly.
 
“The only reason I’m here today is I received a letter a few months ago actually that said the Sweetwater Authority is not going to fund the project at this time,” he said.  “I’m here to make sure that the board members understand the importance of this dam safety issue.”
 
The Sweetwater Dam holds back the Sweetwater Reservoir, which provides water to customers in Chula Vista, Bonita, and National City.
 
“I’m concerned about the people that live downstream from this dam.  That’s my job,” said Gutierrrez.  “The consequence of a failure is extreme.  We can’t allow that.  We will not allow that.
 
Gutierrez made a presentation during Wednesday’s Sweetwater Authority Board meeting to emphasize the dangers.  He stressed the dam is fine on a sunny day but it will not withstand a flood like the one that hit San Diego County in 1916.  That was his biggest concern.
 
“We need to safely get the water over the dam without obviously eroding it and causing some damage,” he said.
 
During the meeting, a couple of the Sweetwater Authority board members said they were unaware of the dam’s unsafe status.
 
However, documents obtained by 10News reveal the board was notified of the problem as early as 2013.  Gutierrez said they first broached the subject with the Sweetwater Authority staff even earlier in 2003.
 
The board still voted nonetheless to not fund the repairs, which would have cost roughly $7 million.  That decision was made this summer and triggered Gutierrez’s visit.  The state wants the dam to be repaired by 2018.
 
Gutierrez’s visit might have worked.  The board said they would find the funding to repair that dam.  Gutierrez warned the board that failure to fix the dam could result in the state restricting how much water Sweetwater could store in the reservoir.