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Town Fights to Control Fate of Fish-Threatened Lake

Environment: Residents are outraged by plan to poison pike-infested waters. State officials call it the only option.


PORTOLA, Calif. — When David Takahashi looks out at the snow-covered face of Lake Davis in winter, he sees 15 years of pleasure and profit. When Patrick O'Brien takes in the same elegant vista, a sparkling white blanket laced in lodgepole pine, all he sees is peril.

Takahashi and O'Brien--merchant and bureaucrat--are in opposing camps of a heated battle over the placid lake, a fight that pits this tiny mountain town against a big state, the governed against the government.

Takahashi has spent the better part of his adulthood renting campsites, selling fishing tackle and angling here in Plumas County at one of California's premier trout lakes. It is a 4,000-acre body of water that O'Brien says must die so it may live.

The plan is to poison Lake Davis, to kill all its fish in order to protect a species that doesn't even live in the neighborhood--the salmon of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta 100 miles away.

The problem, in the eyes of O'Brien, a senior fishery biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game, is that the lake is now infested with northern pike. An eat-everything-in-sight kind of predator, the pike was smuggled into Davis in the early 1990s.

If the pike is not wiped out, state officials fear, it will escape from the lake, end up in the delta and sharpen its teeth on the dwindling salmon. Authorities say that there is no evidence of such spread yet.

O'Brien has yet another warning. Let the pike go and in a few more years, Davis will no longer be a trout lake.

"The catch of trout per angler hour has been cut by 40% in the past year," he says. "If we don't treat, they've got at the most two to three years left of reasonable fishing. After that, they'll be catching all the pike they ever want to see."

State officials are adamant that theirs is the only way, that alternatives posed by area residents just won't work. Among the possibilities, the locals argue, is allowing anglers to actually catch the pike.

In a twist of logic that escapes Portola's residents, the state wants the pike out, but catching them is illegal. State officials say the hardy pike are slow to die and they fear that if caught, the fish will be transported and infest other waters.

Locals like Takahashi contend that poisoning Lake Davis will foul Portola's water supply and wipe out the region's tourism industry--a large part of the troubled Plumas County economy.

But state officials counter that the chemical they plan to use, a piscicide called rotenone, will be gone within weeks of the application and will not hurt residents. They say that for a month after the treatment, monitoring for residual poison will be done and alternative water supplies will be made available, although none have been confirmed to date.

Plumas County Supervisor Fran Roudebush doesn't buy it. She cites studies that show that rotenone and other chemical components that would be put into the lake are carcinogens. The state's mitigation plans would be a small bandage for a large wound, she says.

"Fish and Game says they'll monitor some of the wells," she says. "That's not good enough for the people here. Would you want to be on one of the wells that's not being monitored?"

What has eroded here is more than just an ecosystem. When Portola thinks about Lake Davis, the logic goes something like this:

California plans to put rotenone in the drinking water because it is big and the city is tiny, because the state can do it and the city can't stop it.

"Oh, lady, yes!" says an indignant Tony Olson, owner of Lake Davis Cabins. "You people in the big cities control us. Portola is just a little old guy."

Patrick O'Brien is just as frustrated. A former small-town boy himself, he knows what's happening when he travels up California 70 and gets the cold shoulder.

"If you're not from a small town, if you're a bureaucrat from the big city, there's no way on this earth of ours that they're gonna believe you," O'Brien says.

"I have never tried so hard at anything in my life," he says of his efforts to get Portola to understand why the lake must be treated. "I have spent hours up there talking to those people. And they just simply don't trust you."

If the state proceeds, 70% of Lake Davis will be drained to enable the $1.5-million treatment to go forward. Although the poison would not be administered until October, the draining would probably begin soon. The smaller the lake, the less poison is necessary and the less costly the operation.

Plumas County and the city of Portola filed suit Friday to stop the project. A letter-writing campaign has begun as well--to ask the government to stop itself.

The good people of Portola have let fly a flurry of missives to everyone from Gov. Pete Wilson to the region's legislators. The gist of their plea: There has to be a better way to stop the northern pike.

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