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Stinky mess along Clear Lake's south shore

Thick greenish-brown waves of decaying algae undulate along the shore of Dian Gibson?s Clearlake resort, emitting a cow manure-like stench that is keeping tourists at bay.

?It?s just like you?re living in a sewer,? said Gibson, owner of the Sunset Fishing Resort, a collection of brightly colored cottages on the south shore of Clear Lake.

Now her shoreline is also dotted with clumps of the goo, which look and smell like cow pies.

The shallow, nutrient-rich lake is prone to algae outbreaks, but this year?s is the worst in almost 20 years, officials and residents say.

?This it rather dramatic,? said Lake County Environmental Director Ray Ruminski.

The algae scourge has persisted since mid-June, effectively wiping out Gibson?s summer tourist season, which can generate $7,000 a month.

?I just lost the whole season. It might close me down,? she said.

The same goes for other resorts and restaurants along Clear Lake?s south shore, where the decaying algae and its stink are largely confined.

?They haven?t made any money this year at all,? said Clearlake City Councilwoman Joyce Overton, who, with Gibson has been leading meetings aimed at finding solutions to the algae.

Nearby Clearlake Oaks residents are also suffering. The town?s man-made canals are loaded with dying algae, blown into and trapped in watery dead-ends.

The Keys has the added problem of thousands of dead fish, killed by oxygen deprivation from algae overgrowth.

The outbreak has kept residents of the lake?s south shore indoors with their windows shut and air conditioners on to avoid the stench.

?It?s unbelievable,? said Eric Jensen, who?s lived in Clearlake Oaks for four years. The combined stench makes his wife sick to her stomach, Jensen said.

Residents have also complained of sore throats and other allergic-like reactions, said Lake County Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Tait.

The algae ? a blue-green variety called Lyngbya ? is not known to be toxic to humans, but it can cause skin irritations on contact, so swimmers are warned to stay out of the water in affected areas.

Tait said she also would not assume the algae is non toxic, but she expects most people will keep their distance because it?s so disgusting.

?So that?s good. That?s what we recommend,? Tait said.

Algae invasions are not just a problem in Clear Lake. It?s been making increasingly frequent appearances throughout the country and the world, Tait said.

?I?m not a big fan of the global warming concept. But I?ve seen some documents on climate change and how it may be influencing algae growth, she said.

Clearlake is a particularly supportive host for algae overgrowth. It is fairly shallow and rich with nutrients, some traceable to runoff from fertilizers, other chemicals and sewage, according to Pam Francis, deputy director of Lake County?s water resources department.

Humans also have altered the lake physically over time, removing almost 80 percent of the wetlands that once effectively filtered contaminants from runoff.

This year, the algae overgrowth also may have been assisted by unusually clear water in the lake, which allowed growth-inducing sunlight to penetrate deeper into the lake, Francis said.

Whatever the reason for the outbreaks, south lake residents are preparing for a fight.

Fire and public works departments have tried to disperse the algae by breaking it up and hosing it away, but there was too much algae this year and a shortage of manpower.

A Clearlake Oaks Keys homeower?s group has a machine that it uses to break up algae, but the machine is aging and keeps breaking down, Jensen said. Residents also have launched individual attacks with boats and hoses.

Area residents have been meeting to come up with a concerted battle plan. They?re forming a local brigade of volunteers to fight this and future algae invasions with equipment borrowed from county agencies.

Next time, they?ll try to launch offensive tactics earlier, using a phone tree to notify volunteers at the first sign of invasion, Gibson said.

They?re hoping this year?s siege is almost over. Cooler temperatures and strong wind have greatly reduced the problem over the last two days.

Meanwhile, Gibson endures the smelly muck that conjures images of a 1950s science fiction movie about an alien invasion.

?It reminds you of ?The Blob,? she said. ?My sister calls and says: ?Oh Dian, that blob is going to get you. Please come home.?

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com

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