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Effort to Rid Lake of Pike Leaves a Poisonous Legacy

Ecology: State said chemicals would soon disappear. But months later, Sierra town still seethes over toxic water.


PORTOLA, Calif. — When state wildlife officials poisoned Lake Davis nearly six months ago to rid the pristine trout habitat of a predatory fish called the northern pike, they promised that the effects would be short-lived.

They promised that the lake--this tiny Eastern Sierra city's primary drinking water supply--would be chemical-free, back on tap and restocked with trout before it iced over for the winter.

They promised that the treatment, which was deemed necessary to keep the voracious pike from threatening the state's salmon fisheries, would take but a small bite out of the vital tourism economy here, 50 miles northwest of Reno.

They were wrong on all counts.

Today, the city is bracing for a water shortage, distributing conservation kits and threatening mandatory rationing because at least one potentially harmful chemical is still mysteriously present in Lake Davis, making the water undrinkable.

The lake is still free of fish because the state Department of Fish and Game will not reintroduce the trout until the water tests clean for all compounds applied during a controversial chemical offensive in October that spawned national attention and local anger.

Since then, the agency has been fined $250,000 by the state for allowing the poison to leak out of Lake Davis and flow five miles down Grizzly Creek toward the Feather River. It has been cited by the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District for violating public nuisance laws during the poisoning.

And now, business owners who limped through a winter without revenues from ice fishing are looking ahead to a summer of uncertainty and wondering if they will still be operating when Lake Davis is certified healthy again--whenever that is.

"Our impact began last April when the state began draining the lake" in preparation for the poisoning, said Stephen Clifton, owner of Leonards market. "The impact since April is on the order of $300,000 in lost sales, and we're just one business. I don't see recovery in three years in terms of sales."

The saga of Lake Davis began in 1994, when state wildlife officials believe that a rogue angler introduced the northern pike into the alpine body of water. The fish is not native to waters west of the Mississippi.

Biologists feared that if the pike were to escape from the lake and migrate to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta 130 miles away, the California aquatic industry would be threatened.

Many Portola residents acknowledged that the pike was a potential threat. But the bigger threat, they said, was a government that would swoop in, ignore their protests and poison their drinking water to protect someone else.

Protests Staged to Halt Poisoning

The population of this railroad and logging region--already hard hit by cutbacks in the lumber industry--fought for two years to halt the treatment, arguing that there were safer means of killing the pike.

In a last-ditch effort to stop the application of a piscicide called rotenone to the placid lake, four protesters--including Bill Powers, a city councilman and school principal--braved hypothermia and chained themselves to a buoy in the chilly water.

But the $2-million poisoning effort went on as planned. Sort of. Local officials contend that the agency promised to apply the chemicals underwater. Instead, white-suited agents in small power boats floated a brown stream of poison onto the water's surface as protesters demonstrated onshore.

Rita Scardaci, director of the Plumas County Health Services Department, said that more than 80 health complaints were filed starting almost immediately after the lake was poisoned. They peaked 10 days later and are still trickling in, she said.

"There were upper respiratory aggravations--nasal and oral--and a few individuals had burning in their lungs and eye irritation," Scardaci said. "There were a handful of cases of skin irritation, headaches and nausea. . . . We also believe that there was some suppression of individuals' immune systems."

Fran Roudebush, the Plumas County supervisor who spearheaded the anti-poison effort, said that her laryngitis-like symptoms lasted for two weeks, as did her son's severe headaches.

The big question is how something so long-planned could go so wrong so fast and so badly?

The way Nick Villa, the Department of Fish and Game's senior biologist brought in to manage the aftermath of the treatment, analyzes it, the problem was not in execution but in expectation.

"The only screw-up was what we agreed to," Villa said. "I wouldn't say we lied. We pushed the envelope of our capability. . . . It's not a good way to do business."

For starters, Villa said, his agency promised the California Regional Water Quality Control Board that the poison would go no farther afield than a few yards down the streams that Lake Davis feeds.

"That was not a realistic expectation," Villa said. "It was a false promise from one of our pesticide experts. Instead of several yards, it went several miles."

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