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Assembly bill carries renewed hope of improvements for Clear Lake

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Cloud-shrouded mountains towered above the glistening waters of Clear Lake on a recent April day as pelicans dove for fish and pairs of grebes dashed side by side across the water in a mating ritual. But not all is pristine on the lake, which suffers from chronic problems with algae overgrowth and mercury contamination from old mining operations, issues that have plagued the ancient lake for decades.

Local, state and federal officials over the years have launched numerous efforts to address the problems and avoid potential new ones like invasive mussels, with limited success. The efforts have included three failed county tax measures since 2012 aimed at improving lake quality, an ongoing federal cleanup of a mercury mine and a long-awaited wetlands restoration project.

Now, a bill sponsored by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, is offering new hope for lake improvements. AB 707 doesn’t currently include funding, but local and state officials say it could make such financing easier to obtain by getting multiple agencies and groups to work together on a common goal.

“This is a big deal,” said Lake County Supervisor Jim Steele, a former Fish and Wildlife scientist and manager.

AB 707 would create a “blue ribbon” committee that would bring together a battery of scientists, elected officials, tribal members, environmentalists and others to study the problems and come up with potential solutions.

Aguiar-Curry said she launched AB 707 because of concerns she heard from Lake County residents and officials during her election campaign last year. The input was mixed, leading her to believe further study was necessary. But one thing was clear: The lake is a beautiful asset that is crucial to the county’s economy, Aguiar-Curry said. The bill was approved this week by the Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources. The bill heads next to the Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations.

“We believe all the experts need to come together at one table,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who supports the measure and has been an advocate for Clear Lake improvements. In 2015, he and Aguiar-Curry’s predecessor, Bill Dodd, promoted a bill that would have provided $2.4 million to improve Clear Lake’s ecosystem. It failed.

“With one voice, we’re going to be able to drive a long-term solution for Clear Lake,” McGuire said.

Steele and others are hoping the bill will lead to a comprehensive lake monitoring plan and funding. He’s working on convincing UC Davis researchers to participate. The university already has a wealth of knowledge, having studied the lake for some 30 years prior to 1994, Steele said, but the research needs updating.

The 68-square-mile lake is of interest to scientists because it’s so old — about 475,000 years — a rarity in valley lakes, which tend to be filled by sediment and disappear over relatively short periods of time, Steele said. Clear Lake has survived because earthquake faults located beneath it cause its floor to shift and drop at about the same rate as sediment fills it.

While Aguiar-Curry’s bill winds through the Assembly, Lake County continues work on a major wetlands restoration project at the northwest corner of Clear Lake that’s been in the works for more than two decades.

The estimated $50 million project would eliminate 14 miles of levies and restore 1,650 acres of former wetlands destroyed when the levee systems were built in the 1950s as part of a “reclamation” project that turned most of it into farmland. The Clear Lake basin has lost more than 7,500 acres of wetlands to development in the past century. The county’s share of the wetlands restoration project has been estimated at about $8 million. The county hopes the project dovetails with other Clear Lake improvement efforts.

The wetlands project would go a long way toward clearing up Clear Lake, according to a 2012 county report. Tules, or bulrushes, and other wetlands plants would filter the water from two streams — Scotts and Middle creeks — that currently flow unobstructed into the lake. Studies estimate the wetlands would reduce the amount of phosphorous washing into the lake by 40 percent and overall by 28 percent. Phosphorous is naturally occurring in soil in addition to being a farming byproduct. It is considered a major cause of the blue-green algae blooms, or cyanobacteria, that erupt in Clear Lake on a regular basis in summer months, clogging waterways and releasing a smell with a strong resemblance to cow manure. Some types of blooms can be poisonous as well.

“The best thing that could happen is a big chunk of money would go to the Middle Creek project,” said Victoria Brandon, a member of the local Sierra Club and the Middle Creek Restoration Coalition.

“One of the main reasons the lake is in trouble,” she added, “is we’ve lost 80 percent of the wetlands.”

The county is still in the process of purchasing land in the would-be wetlands area.

Using state grant funds, the county has purchased a little more than half the necessary parcels for about $12 million, said Phil Moy, director of the Lake County Department of Water Resources.

Another $15 million in state grants is needed for the rest, he said, along with the cooperation of the landowners, some of whom have been reluctant to sell. Moy hopes work can begin within the next two years.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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