By Karen Brainard
Pending approval by one more bureaucratic agency, drinking water may be available at the Cedar Creek Falls trailhead in Ramona when it reopens, which is expected sometime next year.
The trail and trailhead at the end of Thornbush Road in San Diego Country Estates are owned by the U.S. Forest Service and are outside any water district boundaries. No drinking water is available and rescued hikers have often suffered from heat-related issues. Although the forest service advises hikers to bring plenty of water, many are unprepared for the long, strenuous hike and hot temperatures.
Because the Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) has water tanks nearby, the forest service asked RMWD to provide water at the trailhead.
An agreement to provide water was approved by RMWD, as well as the forest service, Metropolitan Water District, and San Diego County Water Authority. The last step is the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
At its Nov. 13 meeting, the Ramona water board approved a resolution to seek LAFCO approval with the forest service picking up the costs of the LAFCO application. The forest service will also pay RMWD’s standard charges for water once it is available.
Director Red Hager said there is no assurance that drinking water at the site will reduce the number of rescues and he feels sorry for the residents on Thornbush Road who are impacted by the hikers.
“I’m not happy with it but I don’t know what other choice we have,” he said.
Cedar Creek Falls trail and trailhead closed in July 2011 after eight helicopter rescues over the Fourth of July weekend, and a teenager fell to his death at the falls. That was just months after the trail was improved and opened to the public.
The new trailhead on Thornbush Road ignited criticism when neighboring residents complained of excess traffic and of hikers partying, leaving trash, and damaging yards.
When the trail closed, the forest service worked on a plan to better manage the site. In April, the trail was opened on the Julian side, off Eagle Peak Road.
Brian Harris, public affairs officer with the Cleveland National Forest, said the forest service is still going through an environmental assessment process and Forest Supervisor Will Metz could make a decision on Ramona trail access in mid-December.
One suggestion to monitor the crowds on the trail is to require hikers to obtain permits. Harris said the trailhead could possibly open by June 2013.
Even with the Thornbush trailhead closed, the Ramona Fire Department/Cal Fire is still called to tend to rescued hikers who access the trail from the Julian side or are on Three Sisters Falls trail or at Devil’s Punchbowl, said Battalion Chief Burke Kremensky.
He informed the water board at its Oct. 23 meeting that the department performed 32 rescues in 2011 and about 23 rescues this year, from January until August.
“A lot of them—about 67 percent of them—are heat related,” he said.
Kremensky said Ramona’s Station 81 in the Estates is the nearest station to the federal lands with an ambulance. Oftentimes, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department dispatches its ASTREA helicopters to rescue someone from the trail, he said, and brings them to Station 81, which is then responsible to transport the patient to the hospital, if need be. He said the average commitment time to Pomerado Hospital is about two hours. According to Kremensky, the patients are billed for medical care.
Kremensky said some hikers are OK after they receive water at the station, but that still involves staff time.
“And if they’re minors, we can’t just release them...someone has to stay with that minor until their parent or guardian picks them up,” he told the board.
Directors commented on the burdens placed on the fire department for rescues that take manpower and equipment away from Ramona taxpayers.
“I don’t think the people of Ramona are getting a fair shake out of this,” said Bryan Wadlington, board president.