Lake Merced to get a makeover.

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50-year contract to raise lake's water level.

Lake Merced to get a makeover.

Plan promises to restore beauty

Susan Sward, Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writers    

March 16, 2002

With Lake Merced shimmering blue and gray in the background, a cluster of politicians yesterday announced what they described as a historic step toward replenishing the lake's shrunken water supply.

San Francisco and Daly City officials, representatives of three golf courses and a conservation group announced they had signed a 50-year contract to use recycled water and storm runoff to counteract shrinkage of the lake in San Francisco's southwestern corner.

The goal is to restore the vitality and beauty of the lake, which today is viewed as a shriveled shadow of its once jewellike state when fishermen lined its banks and it teemed with trout.

"Lake Merced is one of the great natural resources in the country," said San Francisco Supervisor Tony Hall, who pushed for the agreement.

"Without question, this is a rebirth for Lake Merced and a victory for the environment," said Hall.

As Hall and others held their news conference by the Lake Merced boathouse dock, Evgeni Karpenko, a 37-year-old carpenter, was fishing on the shore a few hundred yards away. He had only one question about the plan to raise the water level.

"When?" he asked.

Precise projections on how fast the water level will rise and by how much are not available.

Pat Martel, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said that it will take "a number of years" but that the long-term goal is to raise the lake level by seven to 10 feet. She added: "More steps will be needed in the future to restore the lake to its previous level. But this is a big, big first step."

The contract commits Daly City and the golf courses to reduce groundwater pumping from the Westside Basin aquifer -- layers of water-bearing soil and sand hundreds of feet deep. Some critics say pumping from the basin, which stretches from Golden Gate Park south to San Francisco International Airport, sucks water from the aquifer that otherwise could stabilize the level of the lake.

Daly City now pumps about 4,200 acre-feet annually from the aquifer and the Olympic Club, San Francisco and Lake Merced golf and country clubs pump about 1,000 acre-feet annually. An acre-foot of water is about enough to serve the average needs of two families of four over a year's time.

Under the new contract, Daly City will cut its groundwater pumping by 80 percent -- to the extent San Francisco has surplus water it can sell to Daly City to replace the water that would otherwise come from groundwater pumping --

and the golf courses will cut their pumping by a minimum of 70 percent, replacing it with recycled water.

Along with decades of groundwater pumping, development in nearby areas has cut off water that flowed into the lake from three major springs that were under Brotherhood Way, San Francisco State University and the Westlake neighborhood of Daly City.

Although hydrologists differ on exactly how much groundwater pumping and how much development are to blame, all the human activity has lowered the depth of the lake to about 18 feet from a previous high in recent years of 27 feet.

Pressure to reverse this trend increased in January 2001 when California Trout, which represents fishermen and conservationists, filed a petition with the state. The group argued that the lake had been a premier man-made urban fishery and that the number of fish had fallen off sharply as the water level dropped and water quality deteriorated.

Last October, the parties reached general agreement on the plan disclosed yesterday, but it was only in the past few days that most of them signed the contract.

The only remaining step is the expected endorsement of the plan by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.


Email the writers at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com or ssward@sfchronicle.com.
 
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