By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Arguments are still broiling over how high Lake Earl's water level should be despite the release of a management plan meant to end the debate.

Property rights advocates who have lived near the fluctuating lagoon say they will continue a long legal battle to get their way.

andquot;It's going to go to court any way you look at it,andquot; said Richard McNamara, whose extended family has owned ranches and other property near the lake for generations.

Prior to the purchase of the 5,000-acre Lake Earl Wildlife Area by the California Department of Fish and Game, the lagoon was drained into the ocean whenever it reached four feet above mean sea level, McNamara said.

After its purchase for conservation by Fish and Game in the 1980s, the government allowed the lagoon to rise twice as high, flooding adjacent ranch lands, McNamara said.

andquot;It was a tool by them to force lower prices,andquot; he said.

Fish and Game biologist Melissa Bukowski, who helped draft the plan, said repeatedly during the process that a level would be set to both maximize the wetland and protect landowners.

The plan, released last week, proposes to manage the lake at eight feet above sea level part of the year and at five feet for part of the year.

McNamara said the release of the plan gives him and his group more material evidence that Fish and Game is violating the law.

andquot;I feel we've gone further forward by getting them to publish this,andquot; McNamara said.

A point of attack, according to McNamara, is the claim by Fish and Game that the old Fort Dick public dump leaches contaminants into the lake or groundwater.

Such a claim is unfounded, he said, because the dump used to be open 24 hours per day, was unmonitored and free to the public to dump whatever they wanted.

andquot;Even Fish and Game doesn't want to buy that,andquot; he said.

And while Fish and Game biologists say the Oregon silver spot butterfly habitat will benefit from letting the lagoon waters rise to eight feet, McNamara said at eight feet, most of the habitat is flooded.

andquot;Our fight is not a big-band type of project. What we want to get to is a point where they can't pass the buck any more,andquot; McNamara said.

On the other side of the Lake Earl argument are environmentalists who say the wetland is crucial habitat for hundreds of threatened and endangered species and should be left to its natural boundaries.

If allowed to rise to its potential, the lake would hold at least 13 feet of water and possibly be 15 feet above mean sea level.

Realizing the impact on human inhabitants of the area, however, the local environmental group said they would settle for management of the lake at 10 feet.

andquot;Fish and Game already owns 99 percent of the land at the 10-foot level, so I don't see why they want to keep it at eight. And five feet is ridiculous,andquot; said Joe Gartland, a member of the local environmental group, Friends of Del Norte.