By Jennifer Henion
Triplicate staff writer
It was called a compromise by one side and a mind-boggling violation by the other.
It was a decision by the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors before a divided crowd yesterday that will push ahead a state plan to keep Lake Earl from rising above 10 feet and from being breached if its water level is below eight feet.
"Isn't it time that we put this 150-year fight to rest? No matter what decision we make, people are going to be unhappy. Let's stop fighting and move forward," said Supervisor Sarah Sampels, referring to a battle between those who want the lake full and those who want it shallow.
The board of five county supervisors voted 4-1 yesterday to endorse the California Department of Fish and Game's preferred plan to breach the fluctuating coastal lagoon when it fills with between eight and 10 feet of water.
Supervisor Chuck Blackburn was the dissenting voter. He has consistently advocated keeping the lagoon level below five feet, expressing sympathy for property owners he said get flooded.
The board also voted to remove itself from a petition it signed in 2001 asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permission to breach the lake whenever it rises to five feet above mean sea level.
Three members of the board voted to get off the five-foot permit. Blackburn voted no and Supervisor David Finigan opted not to vote.
The two decisions made yesterday will likely expedite the process of getting breach permits from all of the state and federal agencies with jurisdiction over the lake.
Though Fish and Game owns much of the Lake Earl Wildlife Area, other government agencies have power over it, because it is adjacent to the ocean and it is a navigable waterway.
Fish and Game's draft management plan and related report of how the plan will impact the environment near the lagoon set out three alternative water levels at which to manage Lake Earl.
The agency said managing the lagoon by letting it rise to 8-10 feet is best, because it's a compromise that protects landowners and roads from flooding, yet maximizes the size of the wetland wildlife habitat.
Keeping the water below five feet was another option offered, and allowing the lagoon to fill to about 14 feet to breach naturally was the other.
Now that the county has endorsed the "preferred" alternative, the process of making the draft plan a final plan will be expedited.
However, a group of disgruntled property owners have threatened a lawsuit against the county for not choosing the 5-foot level, which they say is the only level that prevents them from being flooded.
"As a 51-year resident of Del Norte County, I don't believe I've seen anything that could have such a detrimental effect as this plan. This plan is so inconsistent with existing county law. It's too mind-boggling for me to speak extemporaneously on it," said Bill Erickson, who lives near the lagoon.
The state claims to own all of the land touched by water from the lagoon up to the 10-foot level.
Others at yesterday's meeting advocated letting the lagoon rise until it naturally breaches itself. The natural breach occurs when the lake fills with rain and stream water to the 13-to-16-foot range, which causes its sandbar barrier to the ocean to open.
"To the Board of Supervisors and to Sarah Sampels, thanks for choosing the preferred alternative, but it's not far enough, even though we have moved forward in a positive way to a compromise position. County residents have been fighting over the lagoon for 150 years because the lagoon is just that important only the players have changed over time," said Joe Gillespie, president of the local environmental group, Friends of Del Norte.
The public may still submit comments or desired changes to the management plan to Fish and Game until Sept. 3. Comments must be post-marked by 5 p.m. on that date.
Fish and Game supervising biologist for the Lake Earl Wildlife Area, Karen Kovacs, said if comments received are deemed not significant enough to change the plan and the impact report, the agency will submit the current plan to the state clearinghouse for a 30-day waiting period.
"It starts a 30-day clock for anyone to file a lawsuit," Kovacs said.
After that period, Fish and Game Regional Manager Don Koch will be asked to sign off on the document to make it final, according to Kovacs.
Whether all the necessary steps to make the plan final will occur before this winter's rains is uncertain.
Even with the plan and environmental impact report in hand, the county and Fish and Game will still have to apply to the California Coastal Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and state Regional Water Quality Control Board for a permit to breach the lagoon.
"I want to be optimistic and think we can have a permit in hand to breach by rainy season. The Coastal Commission is always the big unknown," said Kovacs.
And whether the county will be granted a three- or five- or 10-year permit to breach the lagoon when it reaches eight feet is also unknown.
"Typically, the Coastal Commission doesn't issue long-term permits, but having this document goes a long way. It means the county won't have to go into emergency session anymore to get a permit, and that saves a lot of time," she said.