By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

The breaching of the Lake Earl yesterday was fraught with peril.

With 40-mile-per-hour winds and driving horizontal rain, it took the Del Norte County work crew longer than expected to perform the dangerous operation.

andquot;It was just insane. The ocean was unbelievable. You could feel grains of wet sand hitting you in the face,andquot; said Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn, who attends the breach operations every year.

Teetering on a peaked sandbar between the ocean and the rain-swollen lake, a county worker navigated an excavator to scrape out a shallow trench for the drainage operation.

The wetland complex comprises two connected fluctuating coastal lakes, the largest of which is named Lake Earl. The smaller lake nearest the breach site is called Lake Tolowa. Recent rains have filled the wetland to 10 feet above sea level.

Area ranchers say their pastures flood, trees die and land values go down when the lake rises above five feet. Kellogg Road and other county streets also get covered with water when the wetland fills with more than eight feet of water.

According to Blackburn, Lake Earl filled fast this last month. In the month of December,more than 34 inches of rain have fallen on Del Norte County.

In the last week, Lake Earl waters rose two feet. Members of the environmental group, Friends of Del Norte, say letting the wetland rise to at least eight feet above sea level is crucial to maintaining the wetland habitat that supports hundreds of species of wildlife dependent on such an eco-system. It is theorized that the lake would breach naturally once at the 13-foot level.

County workers perform the breach by pushing the sand aside creating a trench during medium tide. The lake water trickles out at first, then as the ocean tide reaches its lowest point, the trench wicks more and more lake water into the ocean.

Once drained, the lake area is left with about two feet of water. Eventually, the sandbar closes again as ocean waves push sand into place and the winter rains fill the wetland again. Usually, there are hundreds of duck-like coots floating on the lake as it is being breached.

The California Department of Fish and Game brings out an airboat to herd the birds away from the breach site, preventing them from getting sucked out to sea. This year, however, the high winds and hard rains drove the coots into the reedy shelter on the lake's western edge. Typically, the beaches near the breach site are littered with hundreds of the black waterfowl.

andquot;Most waterfowl fly when they're threatened, coots dive and when they do it by the sandbar, they get tipped over and beaten by the waves,andquot; said Ernie Perry, director of the county's community development department.

No dead carcasses are expected this year.

andquot;There were no coots. The wind was blowing so hard, there were breakers on the lake itself,andquot; said Blackburn.