Mar 11, 2001
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The fine print behind Lake Merced agreement

Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer  

July 7, 2002

Despite a landmark agreement reached in March to restore Lake Merced in San Francisco, the lake level will not be raised to historic levels for seven to 12 years.

A confidential city document shows that water levels at the troubled recreation lake will not start being raised until 2005. After that, the lake is projected to rise only 9 to 12 inches per year, which would delay the lake filling until 2015.

The lake is now only half full, with oxygen counts often too low to support fish life. Water levels also fail to meet the city requirement to keep Merced as a 10-day emergency water supply for drinking water. This is a reversal in fortune for Merced, where a press conference and celebration was held in March to announce the deal to stop irrigation pumping for golf courses from the lake's aquifer and then restore water levels for fish, wildlife and recreation.

"We have laws on the books, they just aren't being followed," said Gary Seput, director of California Trout, when told of the document. It was Cal Trout that has pressed the issue by filing an action with the State Water Board against San Francisco, Daly City, San Bruno and 23 others who pump water from Merced's aquifer. "My goal is to get my kids fishing, but at this rate my youngest will be 20 years old by the time the lake is up," said Tony Hall, the San Francisco supervisor who has championed the cause.

"I was hoping for two or three years," Hall said. "We will see a significant level increase in five to seven years (once the pumping is stopped), and the experts say 10 years for the lake to fully sustain itself." He said the best news is that the "mechanizations are in place" for the lake to be restored. The latest hold-up is the construction of a water treatment plant designed to provide irrigation water for golf courses. When that treatment plant goes on line, officials will then shut down the pumps that take water from the Merced aquifer. That will allow the groundwater basin beneath the lake to recharge and for the lake level to then slowly rise.

But in the interim, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has no plans to bring in water from nearby Crystal Springs and raise the lake to historic levels more quickly. That proposal has been opposed in the past because water provided from Crystal Springs could be pumped out for irrigation.

Pat Martel, general manager of the San Francisco PUC, did not return phone calls. A document obtained by The Chronicle that details the future of Lake Merced is designated as "Confidential and Privileged under Evidence Code 1119" and is titled "Schedule of Actions, Westside Basin Groundwater Management Plan. "

It describes a timeline for implementing the plan announced in March.

Lake Merced is located near the coast and San Francisco Zoo, within 20 miles of 3.5 million, residents and the only public lake with fishing from San Francisco on south for 45 miles to little Stevens Creek Reservoir near Cupertino. In 1983, it was described as "the crown jewel of urban fishing and recreation programs in America" in Field & Stream magazine.

According to documents filed with the State Water Board, water levels are down by half and oxygen counts are often too low to support trout and the lake's once flourishing population of freshwater shrimp, which provided natural feed for fish and birds. In addition, tules have filled in 10 to 20 feet along much of the exposed lakebed along the shore, the boat hoists don't work, the piers are out of the water or broken down, and the children's fishing program, once a model for all cities, doesn't exist. Seput said he is frustrated over the lack of action to restore the lake.

"I know how many water pumpers are involved and how difficult it is for them to be accountable for their actions," he said. "When we filed our complaint in January of 2001, we knew it was going to be difficult to get people to do their jobs. The lack of inertia is the biggest obstacle to overcome."

One exception, Seput noted, is the Olympic Club, which is eager for a solution and donated $25,000 this week to help sponsor a future youth fishing program at the lake. That comes on top of $53,000 donated for the same cause last week by the Bella Vista Foundation of San Francisco.

-- NOTES: The record at Pardee Lake in the San Joaquin Valley foothills was broken in back-to-back weeks with rainbow trout weighing 14 1/2 pounds, then a 17.93-pounder, caught by Gary Coe of Folsom. Other big catches: A 47-pound salmon by Steven Hansen of El Sobrante, fishing on the El Dorado out of Berkeley; a 44-pounder by Rich Brown of Redwood City, fishing on the Salty Lady out of Sausalito. . . . At DFG headquarters, the conversion to computer- only sales of fishing licenses at stores across California will be delayed because of the link to the debacle between Gov. Gray Davis and Oracle.

Of 500 aquatic species listed as endangered in the U.S., none has ever been delisted. Such is not the case with birds, with the latest and greatest success coming with Aleutian geese, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Once down to 800 birds, counts are now over 35,000. . . . For those ready to click your SUV into 4-wheel-drive, a free 44-page guide to spectacular back- country roads in Northern California is available from Shasta Cascade at (800) 474-2782 or http://www.shastacascade.org.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.
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