MOSQUITO — Never has a large pile of dirt looked so pretty. Mark Egbert manages both the El Dorado County and Georgetown Divide Resource Conservation Districts. He stood outside the Rock Creek Café in rural Mosquito, a mile west of the confluence of Rock Creek and Mosquito roads, and stared at what will probably be the largest accomplishment of his life, the new Finnon Lake Dam.
It’s also likely his biggest bargain, a $5 million dam that he got for $760,000.
Three days earlier, on Jan. 3, inspectors from the California Department of Water Resources’ Division of Safety of Dams gave the 537-foot-long earthen structure a thumbs up. That means that the once proud Finnon Lake, which has been limited to 50 acre-feet since the dam was declared seismically unstable in 1997, can return to capacity at 518 acre-feet, spanning up to 50 surface acres.
Direct funding for the project came from a $610,000 grant from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, which later put up another $50,000 to expedite project completion. The El Dorado County Water Agency also committed $100,000.
During the inspection, Egbert polled state officials about the retail cost of the dam. None came in under $5 million. “They told us nothing like this had ever been done,” said Egbert.
The accomplishment was the result of perseverance over adversity.
“For every person that told us it wouldn’t happen, someone said, ‘You can do it and I’m going to help,’” said Egbert. “Everyone wanted to see this happen.”
The only member of the greater Mosquito community to oppose the project appears to be a scrappy feral horse that’s lived at the lake for more than 20 years. “Pinocchio” recently left his opinion in four piles atop the new dam.
The lake was a favorite water source for firefighting helicopters on the south divide. For that reason, and for the good of the community, the Mosquito Volunteer Fire Association bought the entire site from the Department of Fish and Game for a dollar after the dam was condemned, and set about fundraising for a restoration project.
Years of unsuccessful grant applications followed, leaving most Mosquito residents skeptical that they’d ever see their lake full again.
But Egbert never lost faith. He kept looking for ways to shave the cost and never stopped submitting grant applications.
Following the two grants that funded the renovation, he stayed on to manage construction. Project engineer John Youngdahl was amazed that “someone with no development or construction background could step up like that.”
The initial budget was based on a local union’s offer to provide earth-moving equipment and labor at no cost as a Job Corps project. But when the time came to start moving dirt the deal fell through, leaving Egbert looking for a contractor who would do the job at Job Corp prices with no budget flexibility.
Several contractors bid, but only one was within the meager project budget.
“I’ve known about the dam for years and promised myself that someday I’d rebuild it.” said Doug Veerkamp.
As for the bid price, Veerkamp just chuckled. “Let’s just say I made a sizable donation. It was something I wanted to do and we got it done.”
Without Veerkamp, Egbert doesn’t think the dam would have been built. “As a Job Corps project, this would have failed,” he said. “Doug wouldn’t take no for an answer, and that’s what got this done”.
Since the contents of the century-old dam were a mystery, “it was hard to predict what obstacles we’d encounter,” said Egbert. As a result, the final design specifications were deceptively simple, filling just three pages.
But the simplicity ended there. When Veerkamp’s team tore into the old dam they found it far more saturated than expected. “Water just flowed out of that old dam,” said Veerkamp.
The soil was too wet to push. The old dam had to be disassembled one scoop at a time.
It soon became clear that the original plan to tear the dam down the first year and rebuild it the following summer wouldn’t work. “Everything was just too wet,” said Egbert.
To seal it up before the winter, Egbert got the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to kick in an extra $50,000, and put Veerkamp and Youngdahl’s crews on double shifts for two weeks in mid-November.
Youngdahl eventually identified 22 soil types in the old dam, as well as a lot of large rock and sand, most of which was unusable in the new dam. Crews spent precious summer weeks digging around in the lakebed for soil that complied with California’s strict seismic requirements for earthen dams, which dictate composition and compaction in different areas of the dam, all designed to prevent “liquefaction,” the virtual melting of saturated earthen dams during even modest earthquakes.
New dams also require a solid footing. The original plan called for a five-foot deep trench to anchor the new Finnon foundation. Youngdahl and Veerkamp’s trench ended up between 12 and 18 feet deep.
“The state came back and told us it was one of the best foundations for a dam of this type that they’d ever seen,” said Egbert, “but it was also a lot of material we didn’t think we had to move.”
Locals gathered daily under the shade structures outside the Rock Creek Café to monitor progress on the activities in the lakebed. To keep them informed, MVFA Community Outreach Coordinator Neil Matheny published 14 editions of a project newsletter, “the Dam News,” over the eight-month project.
The old dam’s center line ran through the middle of the café. To save Mosquito’s popular — and only — restaurant, the dam’s arch configuration was straightened out. The south end of the dam is now upstream of its predecessor by about 75 feet, according to Matheny.
With the lake dry, MVFA Fisheries committee members are working to make Finnon Lake a better fishing hole. They’re shaping a more fish-friendly lakebed that includes spawning habitat and large plastic “fish condos.” Volunteers are still needed.
Approximately 150 large mouth bass, a hard-fighting and voracious game fish, were captured when the lake was drained. They’ve since spawned, providing a healthy native population that will be introduced as the lake fills.
Fishing will once again be allowed at Finnon within two to three years, once a stable habitat is established and second generation of fish are present, said Egbert. Other species, possibly including trout, will be considered once the bass are established.
Ralph Hern, a retired police officer with a strong local project resume, was tapped by the MVFA board to coordinate five Finnon Restoration Project subcommittees: community outreach, water supply, facilities (the surrounding property), fish habitat and vehicular transport (roads and parking lots).
Hern confirmed that the El Dorado Irrigation District has committed to providing dechlorinated water for the lake in return for the Summerfield ditch water rights, but predicted that most of what eventually fills the lake will be rainwater.
Egbert thanked the three public boards that gave him marching orders and kept the faith when obstacles threatened to derail the project: his own Resource Conservation District board, the Mosquito Volunteer Firefighters Association and the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors.
Rock Creek Café owner Frank Ethridge has hung in for five tough years and hopes to see “mother nature come through and restore this place to what it was.”
Like Egbert, he’s grateful for the support of the community and the MVFA, his landlord.
With the disc golf course — minus three holes that will soon be replaced — now reopened, Ethridge will soon be stocking drivers and putters — the round plastic kind.
When the lake opens, he plans to sell fishing supplies and hopes to operate a boat rental concession.
Sipping strong coffee in the café, Egbert joked, “Now that we have a dam here, the project really starts.”
His work won’t be complete until the entire facility is restored, including the roads and parking lots which are still outstanding, he said.
The current target for opening the Finnon Camp Ground is Memorial Day.
Capacity after 1997: 50 acre-feet
New water capacity: 518 acre-feet
Lake depth: 45 – 50 feet
Surface area: 35 to 55 acres
Shoreline: 1.4 miles
Dam length: 537 feet
Total soil used: Over 100,000 cubic yards
Disc golf has reopened
Camping opens Memorial Day weekend
Lake full: up to three years, depending on rainfall
No fishing until then