Wickes’ history in Canyon Lake starts at beginning

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Ben and Trudi Wicke

Ben and Trudi Wicke

Ben Wicke is one of the people Canyon Lakers can thank for not having to worry about the lake flooding during this year’s predicted El Niño winter. When he ran for the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District board of directors in 1994, his campaign included a goal to see the spillway widened on the dam so that water could flow out of the lake more quickly during periods of heavy rain.

Ben and his wife Trudi have firsthand experience with quickly rising lake levels. Before improvements on the dam to widen the spillway, their seawall patio was under water three times, once for two whole weeks during an El Niño year. When that happened, the Main Causeway and North Causeway also were flooded and impassable.

Old-timers who live in the heart of the community can remember the year they had no way to get out of town because both causeways were flooded and Salt Creek was rushing across old Newport Rd. and Goetz Rd. outside the East Gate. Plus, the San Jacinto River had flooded the only other eastbound road on the other side of Quail Valley.

Newcomers to Canyon Lake can hardly imagine that much water rushing through Railroad Canyon, but history has shown the power of runoff from the area’s 800-mile watershed. Between 1882 and 1927, the railroad track that ran through Railroad Canyon, the bed of which is now under Canyon Lake, was washed out three times by powerful floods.

Soon after the last flood, Temescal Water Company bought the railroad right-of-way and began construction of a dam across the river for water storage. EVMWD was formed in 1950 and later obtained the permanent right to store water in Railroad Canyon Reservoir.

After Ben was elected to the EVMWD board, the water district began making improvements to the dam. By 1998, the walkway above the dam had been removed, the spillway widened and other improvements made to enable the dam to withstand a 1000-year flood.

Since then, the Main Causeway has rarely flooded enough to be closed, and the new Goetz Rd. Bridge, where Salt Creek flows into the East Bay, eliminated the old road that got flooded during heavy rain.

Now, when asked what recommendations he has for Canyon Lakers as they prepare for an El Niño year, Ben doesn’t have much advice other than to remind waterfront owners to keep an eye on the lake level and adjust their boat docks as it rises. (It has been said the lake rises about one foot for each inch of rain.)

Ben served on the EVMWD board of directors for 20 years until his retirement a year ago. Over those years, he was an active participant in the many battles waged over the valley’s and state’s most precious resource: water. And he gave many boat tours of the lake for the officials who would help set policies affecting the community’s most important amenity.

Ben and Trudi built their home on the Main Lake, in 1988, but they have been property owners since the community was developed in 1968. With a degree in Industrial Management from Ohio State University, Ben was working for Kaiser Steel in Fontana when he learned about the new development of Canyon Lake from a coworker who had bought a lot.

Ben and Trudi came out for a boat ride and, being avid water skiers with young children, loved the potential for family vacations. A week after their first visit, they purchased a lot on the Land’s End cul-de-sac. Ben still remembers the terms: 7.5 percent for 7.5 years.

They began coming out on weekends, camping at the campground on Village Way and enjoying the wide open lake for water skiing. At that time, there was no North Causeway and boaters could travel far up the San Jacinto River/North Ski Area.

Ben stands with framed photos of the lake, including one of the old dam as it looked when he joined the EVMWD board of directors.  Photos by Sharon Rice.

Ben stands with framed photos of the lake, including one of the old dam as it looked when he joined the EVMWD board of directors. Photos by Sharon Rice.

There also was no I-15 Freeway and Railroad Canyon Rd. was a dark, winding, two-lane road. When the Wickes first started coming to Canyon Lake, the only paved road in the new development was Canyon Lake Drive. They got to the Village Way campground by coming in on a dirt road behind the dam that entered the community at what is now the boat trailer parking lot off Village Way and Loch Lomond Drives.

They didn’t know as they passed the dam and water treatment plant to enter the community how much those infrastructures would someday figure into their history with Canyon Lake.

In the meantime, they lived in Upland and both were busy with work and raising their four children. Trudi was a registered nurse and able to work part time. They sold their Land’s End lot and built a spec house on Big Range Rd. with the help of general contractor Randy Lord.

In the early ‘80s, while still working at Kaiser Steel, Ben started a new business, Canyon Lake Docks. He and the owner of Lake Arrowhead Marina built the U-shaped docks in a rented warehouse in Lake Elsinore, then disassembled them and trailered them to Canyon Lake. They sold hundreds.

After selling the spec house on Big Range, Ben and Trudi had their present house built on Whirlaway Ct., moving in on Christmas Eve 1988. They enjoy a panoramic view of the Main Lake, including Moonstone Beach with its distinctive, bent palm tree standing sentry, in high water and low, at the very tip of the peninsula.

Ben’s part-time secretary was Patsy Bryant, whose husband, Chuck, represented District 1 on the EVMWD board of directors. In 1987, Chuck spoke to the CLPOA about the fluctuating lake level, the cost of imported water, the water’s taste and specific problems of stagnation in the East Bay area. He supported a proposal to negotiate the purchase of surface rights on Canyon Lake; which everyone now knows didn’t happen.

Ben and Chuck became friends, and when Chuck decided against running again for the board in 1994, Ben decided to run. He says he ran because his “heart and soul” were in Canyon Lake. For Canyon Lake property owners, the biggest priority at that time was widening the spillway on the dam so water could leave the lake more quickly and cause less flooding during rain events.

A few years further down the road, Ben pushed EVMWD to improve the Canyon Lake Water Treatment Plant by installing a new ultraviolet disinfectant system, which they finally did in 2012. Ben says it was important to keep the plant operating so that EVMWD would continue to buy and store water from the Metropolitan Water District when the lake level gets too low.

He also helped arrange a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep the lake level at a minimum 1,375 ft. elevation; the contractual level is 1,372 feet. Ben notes, at 1,372 feet, many boat docks, especially in East Bay coves, are unusable.

Another major topic of importance during his 20-year stint with EVMWD was the Lake Lease. When EVMWD and the CLPOA were still talking to each other, he convinced the water district’s general manager, John Vega, to tie the rising cost of the lease to the cost of living rather than the cost of water, which would save the CLPOA thousands of dollars. A 5th amendment to the lease was proposed, but records show EVMWD attached an indemnity clause to which the CLPOA wouldn’t agree.

During his final year on the board, Ben says the EVMWD attorney, John Brown, told him he would have to recuse himself from further involvement in the Lake Lease issue. When Canyon Lake resident Nancy Horton was elected to the EVMWD board of directors last November, she was told the same thing.

These days Ben doesn’t have much to say about the Lake Lease litigation other than that it was “stupid” for the CLPOA Board of Directors to delay making the lease payment last March. “They should have paid, then sued,” he says. Ben says he isn’t following the litigation closely and hasn’t read the Association’s new Lake Lease website.

Apart from serving on the EVMWD board of directors, Ben has made many other contributions to the community. He and Trudi are actively involved in the Fine Arts Guild, Yacht Club and Travel Club, and attend many community events.

In the early ‘90s, before running for the EVMWD board, Ben was vice-chair, then chair of the Long Range Planning Committee, which advocated building Holiday Harbor. Ben helped with the planning of the park and took the plans to all the Canyon Lake clubs to get their support. Such a major project had to win the approval of the membership. Now Holiday Harbor is one of the foremost amenities in the community.

And many would agree that Ben and Trudi are among the foremost (and nicest) of community members.

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Sharon Rice