Secret places in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Lake Elsman


Here’s another place you haven’t been. At least legally. And it’s a beautiful scenic site, right here in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Down behind the old Loma Prieta school, down Wright’s Station, is the area’s most exquisite jewel—Lake Elsman. The water is blue, clear and clean. In places, it’s more than 140 feet deep. And except for a few employees, there are no people. All you hear is the rush of water at the bottom of the spillway.

This is the way the Santa Cruz Mountains must have been several hundred years ago. Quiet. Peaceful. Unpolluted by civilization.

But this is no Alpine lake. It is a 2 billion gallon reservoir, with an earthen dam more than 900 feet in length and a 180 foot high, $9 million spillway. This reservoir satisfies the thirst of a few million people. In a wet year, it provides more than 12% of San Jose Water Works’ total water capacity. And the water is the cleanest of any drawn from a local reservoir.

But this beautiful man-made lake and clean, clear water are not without cost. San Jose Water has protected this lake and their 10,000 acre watershed with armed guards. They have battled with neighbors, trespassers and would-be developers. Their Burns guards were often brusque and threatening. And the company was quick to turn to the sheriff, lawyers and law suits to maintain security.

As property manager William Moore admits, they haven’t been the friendliest of neighbors. But he also pledges some softening in their approach. While they will still block would-be trespassers, they promise to be more courteous and less confrontational, especially to local mountain people.

The tour they gave twelve community members confirmed this new approach. They showed us the lake, dam and spillway, drove us to the downstream Ostwald intake where they pump 17 million gallons per day, and on to their treatment plant next to Lexington Reservoir.

They were great hosts, friendly and informative. They said they would be happy to host group tours. It certainly appears that there is a "kinder, gentler" policy in place.

Although I embrace this new policy, there is a small, little voice that keeps asking "why?" Does the company have future plans that require community support? Do they foresee a day when development, logging or some other project will require public hearings and local acceptance? Or does management simply appreciate the fact that being friendly is a good corporate ethic. We’ll see.

As for opening the watershed to the public, I was surprised at a young neighbor’s reaction. He said, "I’ve hiked here all my life, and I’ve been chased off the property, but I’d rather have my use limited than see this peaceful watershed destroyed by careless and destructive crowds."

Perhaps this is one case where compromise is the best solution--limited, supervised use but not a public invasion. Even if we all acted responsibly, there are just too many of us, so maybe Lake Elsman should forever remain a secret place in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

What do you think? E-mail me at, or call 353-1546.


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  • Date last edited: 11/18/05


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