Breach illegal; culprits sought

April 02, 2003 12:00 am

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Lake Earl lagoon was illegally breached Saturday morning, but who did it and exactly when is still in question.

Ernie Perry, director of the Del Norte County Community Development Department, said yesterday that his employees were sent to breach the lagoon at about 7 a.m. Saturday. When they arrived, the sandbar had already been trenched.

"The crew said it was breaching when they got there. There were some liquor bottles that we collected and are keeping for evidence," Perry said.

Department of Fish and Game agent Tim Williamson stationed at the Lake Earl Wildlife Area said evidence shows the perpetrators trespassed onto state park lands, cut through fences owned by the Pacific Shores Water District Board, then trespassed onto State Lands Commission property at the breach site.

"I don't think we're pursuing it (prosecution), but I'm pretty sure the Fish and Wildlife Service will. They were pretty hot about it," Williamson said.

Apparently the perpetrators picked the wrong spot to breach the lagoon as well, possibly causing a greater rush of the lagoon waters which had reached 11 feet above sea level.

"I'm pretty sure it's not where the county intended to breach. It flushed out pretty fast," Williamson said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Randy Brown said information about the illegal breach and the risks incurred to endangered species were sent to the agency's law enforcement branch.

"Pretty clearly, endangered species were taken under the Endangered Species Act," said Brown.

"There were several different federal laws violated. The Clean Water Act and the Harbors and Rivers Act which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They may also take action. Of course, there were a number of state laws violated as well," said USFWS biologist Jim Watkins.

Specifically, the tidewater gobi and coho salmon and some species of birds were put at risk, the biologists said.

Though the same species are at risk if the county breaches the lagoon with a permit, the risk is not as great, Brown said, because officials take many precautions to protect the wildlife.

Fish and Game officials operate in daylight when fish are active and use a wide excavator blade to shave the sand out of the way making a shallow angle channel, Brown said. The amateurs who acted illegally in darkness cut a relatively deep, narrow trench allowing a fast torrent. Operating at night poses the risk that inactive fish will be swept out to sea.

There are also many other conditions in the breach permit which was hard-won by both the county and Fish and Game.

One is to shoo away birds that might get caught in the outflow. Another condition is to take water samples for the Water Quality Control Board and to check stranded pools left after the breach to save wildlife that would otherwise die.

All requirements of the permit received by the county Friday for the breach were completed by the county and Fish and Game.

Illegal breachers have been prosecuted before. In the early 1990s, the Pacific Shores California Water District attempted to breach the lagoon without a permit.

Fish and Game officials said heavy fines were levied against the water district.