Window on Lake County: Clear Lake – Re-Engineer or Re-Wild? – Part 2

If you missed part, one, you can read it here.

What are those questions that would guide better decision making to a rewilding of the Clear Lake watersheds ecosystems?

The first might be to determine how to restore the Middle Creek area to its most effective wetland attributes without creating more problems of flooding or mosquito invasions. Basically, how much landform change is needed to best support the interactions of wildlife, human enjoyment and sediment trapping. Right now the operating principle is to purchase all the land back to a public ownership and only then turn the designing and construction over to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Hmm, wasn’t this the agency that designed the flood control system pushing sediment into the lake in the first place? Maybe they’ll do better this time, but some pre-guidance principles would be advised.

The next important set of questions revolve around how much affect will the restoration of Middle Creek have on the lake and where are the sediments most likely from in the watershed? Fortunately, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey using chemical fingerprinting of sediment in the streams saves the day since nothing new was proposed by UCD. Actually, if it turns out that most of the sediment is through the Middle Creek watershed, it would be a repeat answer already determined. If not, what else should be done, shouldn’t we know? The next question should be, how is runoff processed by the lake?

What could have informed the backdrop for these studies was the satellite imaging data begun by the County but never finished some years ago (money and staffing being an issue). This work was expected to be continued by UCD and at one time it seemed like it would but was dropped apparently because UCD doesn’t have a satellite electromagnetic imaging study section such as the Blue Water Satellite group (now merged with another company) the county was using.  Too bad, imaging the lake’s processes involving sediment input, phosphorus cycling, cyanobacteria formation and lake transport was extremely informative and the next questions for the county study team were obvious. Rediscovering these lake processes by UCD students and instructors of course is important, but are they focusing on questions that would form the basis of good lake and watershed management practices? Student projects are good, but for the future developing a Clear Lake Basin Management Program with feedback loops might be even more important.

Additional local management questions revolve around the residence time for phosphorus in the lake. Knowing whether key mineral ingredients are missing or in low amounts that could slow the recycling might be a game changer. Also, are key areas of the lake producing the lion’s share of the phosphorus? All that incoming sediment mixed with organics at the Middle Creek outlet curtesy of the levees seem suspect. Who is studying this and wouldn’t it be important? 

Being proposed by UCD instead is a study conducted by a private firm but with heavy faculty oversite by the UCD team, to determine if injecting oxygen at the benthic water interface would slow cyanobacteria formation. The pilot would be conducted in the channels of the keys and I suppose lead to a larger lake size project proposed for state funding. I’m guessing that the logical end point for this endeavor would be local management of the expensive oxygen producing system, or maybe a state agency needs work?

The justification for spending significant money on this engineering approach is to produce a lake with low cyanobacteria while the restoration of Middle Creek is completed. Of course, the questions of how much difference the restoration project will make, how do specific sediment processes work and how long the recycling phosphorus will last remains unanswered. So are we on the right track, are we developing local management capacity, is the state’s money (read excess tax payer dollars) being well spent to reengineer the lake? Should we instead develop a how-to manage and rewild the natural components of a beautiful, oldest-in-the-hemisphere, natural, warm-water lake ecosystem? These are some of those questions that will propel Clear Lake into a well-managed ecosystem that will be answered by the Blue Ribbon Committee.

Jim Steele

Jim Steele is a former Lake County Supervisor in District 3 on the County's North Shore. He is a retired State Water Quality Scientist, Registered Professional Forester, Endangered Species and Water Rights Consultant and has taught graduate level courses as an adjunct professor at Cal-State University, Sacramento.

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