High-water mark for lake on the table

July 01, 2003 11:00 pm

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

A high-water mark for controversial Lake Earl is now on the table.

California Department of Fish and Game revealed a draft management plan for the coastal lagoon Tuesday morning after nearly 140 years of debate between local citizens.

It proposes letting the water rise to between eight and 10 feet before it's artificially drained.

The document serves both as a plan of how to manage the fluctuating lagoon and its related wetlands and an environmental impact statement of how the plan will affect the area and the people who live next to it.

It is a draft document that the public will now review. The 45-day public comment period began yesterday.

On Aug. 14, Fish and Game will begin drafting a final plan.

Ernie Perry, head of the Del Norte County Community Development Department, which handles the operation of draining the lagoon, said he expects lots of public comment.

"This is quite a potential public review and comment process ahead of us. Even the county will have comment, and Fish and Game will have to wrestle with that," said Perry.

The document is considered significant partly because it's expected to cut reams of red tape the county must navigate when it wants to relieve flooding on land surrounding Lake Earl.

Every winter, as the seasonal rains begin, the lagoon wetland swells with water.

Ocean wave action near the lagoon mouth pushes sand into a compact barrier that holds the water in, letting the lake level rise to about 13 feet above mean sea level.

It is widely accepted that county roads and some nearby private lands are inundated with lake water once it reaches the 8.5- to 10-foot level.

For the county to get permission to breach the sand barrier and drain the lagoon into the ocean, officials had to plea to five different state and federal agencies.

The mire of bureaucratic requirements often took several days for county officials to get through. Meanwhile, rains often persisted, raising the lagoon beyond the flood line.

Last winter, the government entanglements lasted for weeks, allowing the water to raise beyond 11 feet, cutting off road access and requiring the rescue of at least two lake-area residents.

Fish and Game's plan and environmental impact report is expected to satisfy the requirements of the other government agencies with jurisdiction and allow the breach of the sand barrier whenever the water rises to eight feet above mean sea level.

That level will "maximize ecological production of the Lake Earl Wildlife Area to the optimal extent possible while balancing the needs of all species with the needs of the public," according the report.

The plan and impact report is posted on the internet at www.dfg.ca.gov. It is available in print for review or copying at the Del Norte County Library, the Del Norte County Planning Department and the Lake Earl Wildlife Area headquarters on Old Mill Road.

In addition to planning for the wetlands' future management, the document outlines the history of human occupation around the lagoon starting in the year 900 AD.

"With the establishment of the timber industry (in 1869) began the long-standing controversy over lake levels that exist to this day," the plan says, referring to the start of a debate between those wanting the water level high and those wanting it low.

The plan also outlines average yearly weather patterns and a descriptive inventory of fish, bird and other wildlife of the area.