HARBOR CITY — To nature lovers, fishermen and picnickers, Harbor Regional Park's 23-acre lake is a sanctuary amid a sea of highways and high-rises.
But to some state and local officials, the lake is seen not so much as a haven for pleasure seekers as a home for mosquitoes that breed along the lake's swampy, weed-infested shoreline and pose a health threat.
"It's one of the largest sources in the Los Angeles metropolitan area for disease- and non-disease-carrying mosquitoes," says Charles Myers, a public health biologist with the state Department of Health Services. "All the ingredients for mosquitoes are at Harbor Lake."
"It's just a natural spot for mosquitoes," adds A. C. Estes, who serves as the City of Los Angeles' representative on the Southeast Mosquito Abatement District Board of Trustees. "The lake simply attracts mosquitoes because of its ecology."
The abatement district warned that it will not be hesitant about using its powers to control disease-carrying insects at Harbor Regional Park.
Now, however, the abatement district says it is determined to put a large dent in the park's mosquito population, which is believed to have increased in recent years as maintenance of the area's swamps and weeds has declined.
Appeal for Action
The district, fearing a repeat of last year when encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes were discovered at the 230-acre park, has appealed to the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks, which is responsible for operating and maintaining the park, to take action to permanently control the problem.
Moreover, district officials say that they have warned the city that the district will not be shy about using its enforcement powers to get the job done. Under state law, the district could fine the city $500 a day for every day it believes a public health problem exists.
"We're not raising the red flag and saying we are going to have an encephalitis outbreak the day after tomorrow," Estes says. "We do feel, though, that this is a threat to the public health and we can't afford to let it go. And we believe recreation and parks must assign a higher priority to this thing than they have (in the past)."
Several abatement district officials say that their get-tough stance stems from the fact that there were more than 20 cases of encephalitis reported in Los Angeles County last year. One case was contracted by a man living near Harbor Lake, the officials say.
Also, the district's concerns have been heightened because last fall it discovered that there were mosquitoes at the lake carrying the virus. The find was made after the district placed a "sentinel" flock of chickens near the water.
Chickens are used because mosquitoes prefer to feed on poultry. If the animals are infected, they do not suffer symptoms of the disease, but their blood shows signs of the virus.
"We have been telling the department for the past 14 years that there was the possibility of disease-transmitting mosquitoes in the area and it finally occurred," says Jack Hazelrigg, an entomologist with the district.
The abatement district's effort to persuade the city to find a solution to the lake's mosquito problem comes a time when a program aimed at improving the lake's fishing is nearing completion. In all, $1.2 million in state funds was allocated to the Recreation and Parks Department to dredge a portion of the lake, install an aeration system, clean up the shoreline and construct a new dam.
While state Fish and Game Department officials have already planted about 4,000 catfish in the lake as part of the program, they have agreed, at the request of the abatement district, to delay planting bass until this summer or fall. The district was concerned that the bass could add to the mosquito problem because the fish feed on gambusia, or mosquito fish, which eat mosquito larvae.
"Naturally, we were somewhat reluctant to halt any of our activity when we were first contacted," explained Keith Anderson, a fisheries management supervisor for the department. "But it's probably the best thing to do because there is a bona fide public health concern. When we have a public agency saying there is a problem, we have to accept their expertise."
Recreation and parks officials say they agree with the abatement district that the mosquitoes are a problem. But they say the department has been careful to consider the concerns of environmentalists, who have complained that any large-scale removal of bulrushes to give mosquito fish a better chance to forage could destroy or harm the nesting habitats of some wildlife and birds such as the least bittern.
In addition, the officials say, the department's maintenance efforts at the lake have been affected in recent years by decreases in personnel and funds.