November and December seem to be magical months for Laura Koval, who manages Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve and its 300-site public campground.
In early November, Santee Lakes won its third Plan-it-Green Award in the past five years from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC).
Earlier this month, Santee Lakes also won its first Torch Award for Environmental Stewardship from the Better Business Bureau, a highly competitive award involving every category of business in San Diego and Orange Counties.
To top it off, Koval has made a successful foray into politics, winning a seat on the Santee City Council. She was sworn in to a two-year term on Wednesday, Dec. 12 and will be the only woman on the Santee City Council.
“It’s been a crazy few months!” said Koval, who was born and raised in rural East San Diego County and built successful careers in community service, marketing and customer retention before going into the campground business four years ago.
But Koval said she has the experience needed to help the city of Santee, which like many communities will struggle with a budgetary shortfall if there is no course correction. “That’s my area of expertise: budgeting and revenue generation and thinking of creative ways to generate income. I just felt that with my experience, I should run,” she said.
Koval initially worked for the Boys and Girls Clubs of East San Diego County and subsequently spent 28 years working in various positions for the San Diego Padres baseball team, ultimately becoming their director of ticket services and fan loyalty. Then she spotted the opportunity to move to Padre Dam Municipal Water District in 2012 and ultimately moved to manage Santee Lakes, a scenic public campground with seven private, stocked fishing lakes, all of which are filled with recycled water owned by Padre Dam Municipal Water District.
It was December 2014, in fact, when Koval attended her first ARVC convention. She had only been managing Santee Lakes for a week when she was called onto the stage to receive ARVC’s Park of the Year Award as well as its Plan-it-Green Award.
It was the second time in two years that Santee Lakes had won both awards, an extraordinary achievement that gave Santee Lakes national recognition, particularly for its green initiatives.
Now holding two Park of the Year Awards, three Plan-it-Green Awards and one Torch Award for Environmental Stewardship from the Better Business Bureau, Santee Lakes is one of the most highly acclaimed parks in the campground business.
And Koval said it’s about to get even better. Earlier this month, Padre Dam Municipal Water District issued a Request for Qualifications for an active water recreation amenity, such as a surf park, a cable ski park or aqua park.
“We’re conducting a two part selection process” Koval said. “First is the RFQ to establish a ‘short list’ of qualified developers. The second will ask the selected developers to provide a detailed proposal in an RFP process.”
Another major park improvement project involves a $10 million makeover of the hub of the Santee Lakes park and campground, which will include a coffee bar and grill; retail stores; a 300-person dining deck over the water; and additional rental accommodations. These improvements, Koval said, are not only intended to generate additional revenue, but to showcase the benefits of water recycling.
Koval hopes to have the new improvements completed within two years.
Santee Lakes has always been managed by Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which started recycling wastewater in the late 1950s, making it one of the nation’s oldest water recycling installations.
Padre Dam currently generates about 2 million gallons of recycled water each day, half of which flows through the seven recreation lakes at Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve. The other half is used to irrigate landscaping in the Santee area, a suburban community about 18 miles northwest of downtown San Diego.
While swimming is not permitted in the lakes, the lakes do support several different species of fish, including bass, trout, catfish, carp and bluegill. The Santee Lakes campground sells day use permits for fishing, a popular activity at the park, which also offers pedal boat, rowboat and canoe rentals.
Prior to Koval’s arrival in December 2014, Santee Lakes had also installed four acres’ worth of solar panels, which collectively produce 1 million kilowatts of electricity. That’s enough electricity to cover half the park’s power needs, including its RV and tent sites, its clubhouse, its electronic gates and its 10 park model RVs from Champion’s Athens Park Homes division, three of which are unique floating cabins on a lake. A separate solar system was also installed to help heat the park’s two swimming pools and Jacuzzi.
More recent green initiatives under Koval’s management include a $1.7 million park improvement project that included the installation of 55,000 square feet of sod and the planting of 200 trees, including sycamores, oaks, cottonwoods, carrotwoods and other water efficient trees on the west side of the campground, which are irrigated using recycled water from Padre Dam as well as underground seepage from the lakes. These new trees complement many existing mature shade trees and sod in the campground.