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Lake Earl management plan complete

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

The document expected to put a 100-year debate about Lake Earl to rest is now completed and waiting to be printed for the public.

"I think it's close. I'm keeping my fingers crossed," said Melissa Bukowski, wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.

For more than two years, Bukowski has been instrumental in compiling the Lake Earl Wildlife Area management plan.

The plan will dictate how the wildly fluctuating coastal lagoon waters will be controlled – an issue that both environmentalists and residents who are flooded yearly want resolved.

"It's important because it affects county property, (county residents and wildlife), all of those things," said Ernie Perry, director of Del Norte County's Community Development Department.

Fish and Game biologists and environmentalists consider the 5,500-acre wetland crucial habitat for many bird and plant species.

Allowing the lagoon to fill each winter with 8 to12 feet of water before breaching its oceanside sandbar for draining is best for the wildlife, say some locally vocal environmentalists.

Lake-area property owners, however, say the lake should be consistently maintained at 5 feet to prevent flooding of their land and to prevent a total drain out of the estuary, as happens when breached at the 12-foot level.

Though this debate has roiled on for nearly a century between farmers wanting a low lake and mill owners wanting a high lake, the argument has heated in the past few years between farmers and environmentalists.

A shift occurred when the state purchased much of the Lake Earl wetland, along with the breach site, from a private family.

When the family owned the site, it was easier for the county or others to get permission to breach the lake when it seemed too full, according to Perry.

Now, with state ownership and 20 years of increasingly complex environmental regulations, getting permission to breach requires the county to cut its way through a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape, Perry said.

Five years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the county it would no longer permit breaching of the lake until a management plan and environmental impact study were completed — unless the waters constituted an emergency.

The county, the private landowners and the environmentalists have waited those five years for Fish and Game to complete the plan now expected in two weeks.

It was promised for release to the public last June but was held an extra year for extensive legal review after several lawsuits were threatened by angry lake-area landowners.

"I'm expecting to get final approval from the legal department this week. It will probably take another week of activities getting it printed and posted on the internet after that," said Bukowski.

Once printed, the plan will be sent to the state's office of planning and research, which will set the clock for a 45-day public comment period.

The management plan will not become final until after the public is given a chance to comment and Fish and Game responds to those comments.

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