Window on Lake County: Clear Lake’s Incremental Impacts

We’re all aware of the changes in life that go unnoticeable from day to day but can be detected over time. Changes from getting older always come to mind, also wear and tear on the high mileage family car. Something familiar to add to the list is the changes that occur with increasing population leading to increased infrastructure building such as roads, new agriculture, increased well drilling, town development, or the off-road vehicle boom. In the not-so-familiar or obvious category are the unnoticed changes to ecosystems caused by landscape alterations. These incremental changes are often small when they occur but can be considerable when they accumulate. Species becoming endangered is the most notable result.

It’s for this reason that approval of projects by any governmental permit process since the 1970s must consider impacts from accumulated effects through requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Lake County has quite a few areas that have notable cumulative effects over the years when you look at increased fire danger from lack of fuel load burning, loss of the possibly irreplaceable Valley Oaks from development, or perhaps the hidden changes to groundwater aquifers from over pumping. But Clear Lake’s present summertime water quality condition is probably the most obvious example of cumulative impacts. Cyanobacteria blooms have dominated conversations about Clear Lake since the 1940’s just as they have dominated the lake ecosystem.

Decades of watershed change have resulted in greater than 85% wetland loss, shoreline changes have removed natural emergent vegetation, upland erosion increased due to road building, off-road vehicle recreation, instream gravel mining, hard surface runoff from streets and highways, extraction mining, and a multitude more activities. This landscape change and disturbance have discharged tons of sediment into Clear Lake during high-energy winter storms.  Over the years, these inputs have increased the nutrient and pollutant levels of the lake beyond the levels of the previous several hundred thousand years, according to Lake Bottom coring studies.

Lake study projects conducted by The CA Department of Water Resources, UC Davis, and UC Berkeley over 30 years have produced a wealth of information about Clear Lake’s nutrient-loaded ecosystem changes, which led to these excessively intense cyanobacteria blooms. In an attempt to reverse these changes, the Regional Water Quality Control Board leveled a sanction (called a TMDL) on Lake County with an order to reduce nutrient loading by 40%. Unfortunately, no baseline was established to measure against, and nutrient monitoring and reporting was not required. Nice try, but nobody noticed.

 If we want to reduce lake nutrients to a pre-European level, we should do something different than repeating the same studies and vague governmental oversight. Studying the nutrient processes through their life in the ecosystem for keys to measuring progress is important for management. Developing an upland and lake management plan and decision tool will require knowing these keystone metrics. Any additional tax-funded studies on the lake should concentrate on knowing what and where to measure to determine progress from a management and policy-making point of view.

Picking the nutrient pathway as a focus is a good starting point since it’s been officially designated by both past studies and the RWQCB as the culprit. Tracking the right upland erosion processes and lake metrics could lead to understanding where what and how we’re doing as managers.

A good example is the Middle Creek Restoration Project which has taken millions of tax dollars to rectify past bad policy decisions and hasn’t tuned a shovel yet. No studies have been done to estimate its result or establish a baseline metric. With tons of recycling nutrients already in the lake, maybe we should be doing more. Who knows?

Picking a complex end in mind, such as reducing cyanobacteria intensity without knowing and measuring key management indicators, could lead to more of the same policy decisions for Clear Lake with unknown results.

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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