Recycled Water

Water is necessary for life. We live on a blue planet, but only 2.8 percent of the earth’s water is fresh water; the remainder is salt water. Today, fresh water is extraordinarily precious in Southern California because of the limited rainfall and especially—over recent years—the state’s historic drought. A large percentage of Southern California’s water is imported, which takes both large amounts of energy and infrastructure, making fresh water very expensive.

The Past

In 1959, the most pressing issue in Santee, Calif., (located in San Diego County) was waste-water disposal. The city was faced with two alternatives: sign a 40-year contract and pipe the waste water 20 miles to a treatment plant, or recycle the water through a treatment process. The Padre Dam Municipal Water District (formerly the Santee County Water District and Rio San Diego Municipal Water District) chose the latter option and became pioneers in water recycling. Seven beautiful lakes were created, and in 1961 Santee Lakes Recreation Area opened to the public. Today, the state-of-the-art Ray Stoyer Water Recycling Facility, upstream of the preserve, feeds the seven lakes with 1-million gallons of recycled water per day and creates the same amount per day for irrigating local parks, schools, and landscapes through 32 miles of irrigation pipelines.

The Present

Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve is an award-winning, privately owned, 190-acre park destination, offering camping, fishing in year-round stocked lakes, boating, recreation, and an environment perfect for bird watching and picnics. Its incorporated, sustainable use of recycled water has enabled the preserve to envision an ever-growing and evolving park at a time when many Southern California recreational areas suffer from a diminished water supply.  By covering all its operation costs through user fees, the park is also financially self-sustainable, which is rare for a park system. Santee Lakes continues to serve as a model of conservation, sustainability, and tax-free recreation for over 750,000 visitors annually.

The Future

With its continued success and the strong leadership of Director Laura Evans, Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve has showcased what a sustainable park of the future can be in Southern California and the United States. Evans states: “The dynamic vision plan … is the first significant step in strategically planning the park’s future. Creating this 20-year vision will serve as an idealized picture of the possibilities for our park and campground. At the same time, this vision will allow for flexibility in the market as well as changes in tourism, public interest, funding, trends, and technology. The … plan will serve to engage the community and stakeholders, empower and motivate employees, and ensure Santee Lakes remains a premier destination.”

To enhance the park, a team of consulting firms was assembled, including a project manager, architect, landscape architect, civil engineer, and video-production company to assist in creating the plan. The plan is composed of conceptual building and site plans and 3D modeling to visually communicate design concepts. The team worked to redesign sections of the park for added amenities, improved park vehicular and pedestrian circulation, increased site functionality, and added additional parking. Amenity and event spaces were critical to sustainable growth as they will generate the revenue to financially support future projects and increasing operational needs. Through careful site analysis and programmatic development, the team conceptually designed and modeled portions of the park to include:

  • A remodeled park entrance
  • An outdoor “super site” wedding and large event venue
  • A landmark water tower
  • A splash park/spraypad
  • General store, coffee bar, and grill area renovations
  • Large dining deck with lake view
  • An administration and events center
  • A clubhouse redesign, including adult pool, family pool, spraypad, concert/performance amphitheater, pickleball courts, bocce ball, and shuffleboard courts
  • A yurt cabin village
  • An aquatic park with cable ski course
  • A resort pool facility
  • Expanded fishing docks
  • Numerous picnic areas. 

Throughout the park, special consideration was given to improving pedestrian safety and access. Vehicular circulation and designated parking was redesigned to allow for a 12-foot-wide, multi-use pedestrian and bicycle trail. Parking was also redesigned and improved to increase efficiency and quantity. The design of the cable ski course and resort pool amenities will activate a currently unused portion of the park to show how a recycled water-treatment facility and park preserve can be a viable community asset. 

The recycled water project and Santee Lakes have received worldwide attention and continue to attract visitors in the field of water reuse and reclamation. Padre Dam Municipal Water District is continuing the pursuit of water recycling through the Advanced Water Purification Demonstration Facility. This facility treats recycled water using advanced water-purification steps, with the end product being water so clean that it is near distilled quality. The goal is to expand that treatment process to create 2,000 to 3,000 acre-feet of drinking water per year.

Tim Jachlewski, PLA, ASLA, is the president of In-Site Landscape Architecture, Inc., in San Diego, Calif. Reach him at

Zach Tanner, PLA, ASLA, LEED AP, is a project designer at In-Site Landscape Architecture, Inc.


The Dynamic Vision Plan Project Team

Laura Evans, Director of Park and Recreation—

Project Management: Consolidated Building Systems, Inc. (CBSI)—

Architecture: Platt/Whitelaw Architects, Inc.—

Landscape Architecture/3D Modeling: In-Site Landscape Architecture, Inc.—

Civil Engineering: Nasland Engineering—