An enclave of bald eagles has thwarted construction of a condominium complex in the rustic Big Bear Lake hamlet of Fawnskin in Southern California.
Up to 14 eagles have made a seasonal home in the branches of the forested glen overlooking the site where Irving Okovita wants to build a 133-unit condominium complex and 175-slip marina.
Construction is being held up by the bald eagles' federal listing as an endangered species. Wildlife authorities say the eagles could be delisted by year's end, a move that could allow construction to proceed.
That concerns some residents, who fear that this development and others could imperil overtaxed aquifers that supply water to tinder-dry mountain communities, like this one, that barely escaped last fall's raging forest fires.
Underlying the controversy is a building boom fueled by low interest rates and pent-up demand for vacation homes, according to developers and water officials.
Yet, at a time when there are more building permits being issued than there are available water connections, some officials are worried about their influence on the drought-stricken region.
Big Bear Valley Community Services, which serves a portion of the region, is limiting water connections to 96 per year.
"If the water shortage gets more severe, we'll ratchet down even further," water manager Gary Keller said.
"I'm not happy about the building boom," he said. "But people have private property rights. Besides that, as water purveyors, it's not our job to control building. It's our job to provide water."
That kind of talk disturbs high-country residents such as Tom Core, a Big Bear Valley historian.
"What we need to do is stop construction right now," he said. "Springs that flowed all my life have recently gone bone dry. What's happening here is a disaster, and it shouldn't be allowed."
Todd Murphy, who serves on several Big Bear Valley volunteer boards, agreed.
"What we're seeing is a lack of understanding that you just can't build out like this without serious consequences," he said. "The time has come for people to start taking action."
For Murphy that means leading a petition drive calling for a moratorium on growth anytime there are water restrictions.
Current restrictions forbid outdoor watering from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and require immediate repair of all leaking waterlines and faucets. Water from landscape irrigation is not allowed to run off into the street, and new landscaping is limited to 1,000 square feet of turf.
It makes little sense to many residents that they are forced to conserve while the three regional water districts continue to allow construction of more houses and condominiums.
In May, a federal judge blocked the 133-unit condominium on grounds it could harm the eagles in surrounding forests. The eagles flock to the area between November and April to perch in the pine trees and forage in what remains a quiet, rural forested area along the Pacific Flyway, a transcontinental migration route for millions of birds.
In court documents, Arthur Wellman, a lawyer who represents the Marina Point developers, contends that the project would enhance the environment and improve conditions for eagles by taking down dead trees and planting new ones.
That argument was disputed in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Friends of Fawnskin. The suit accused developers of operating without permits required by the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts.
The suit also pointed out that explosive growth over the last two decades on the lake's southern shores has forced the region's shrinking bald eagle population to congregate on the opposite side near Fawnskin.
In the last quarter-century, the average number of bald eagles seen in the San Bernardino Mountains has fallen to 14 from 27, according to annual bird counts conducted by San Bernardino National Forest biologists.
Now, with four large-scale projects proposed for the Fawnskin area, "the cumulative impact of development . . . could very well lead to the complete disappearance of the bald eagle from the area," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Kassie Siegel.
In the meantime, Big Bear Valley's water districts are stepping up conservation measures even as new upscale housing developments with names such as Castle Glen, Meadowbrook Estates and Maple Ridge are changing the character of this former workingman's retreat.
Castle Glen is a collection of multi-story homes on landscaped hills overlooking wetlands on the eastern end of Big Bear Lake, where bald eagles used to hunt for ducks and trout. Today, the area is dry and the eagles have all but disappeared.
A few miles away, Meadowbrook Estates foreman Mike Stearns was laboring on the foundation of a $1.1 million house that he said would not have a water connection until sometime in July.
Asked why homes were going up without water connections, Stearns laughed and suggested, "It's all about the almighty buck, and stimulating the local economy."