Life continues to drain out of Lake Merced
May 19, 1999
©1999 San Francisco Examiner
"IF FIVE thirsty kids are given five straws and a quart of water, they will suck so hard that the pitcher will go dry before anyone asks for a refill."
In just one sentence published five years ago, Examiner editorial writer Lynn Ludlow nailed the exact problem with Lake Merced in San Francisco and its continued deterioration.
"The lake, a natural spring-fed, freshwater lagoon at the southwest corner of The City, sits atop a coastal aquifer. This porous layer of sand and gravel reaches from Golden Gate Park to Daly City, drilled by wells that supply Daly City, South San Francisco, California Water Service Co. and the Olympic Club, Lake Merced Golf and Country Club and the San Francisco Golf and Country Club. The City's Harding Golf Course gets irrigation from the lake."
Those five thirsty kids are still sucking the life right out of Lake Merced.
What you have, explains Jerry Cadagan of the Committee to Save Lake Merced, is "Mono Lake Underground."
"What we have here is a perfect case for public trust litigation," said Cadagan, 60, an attorney. "If I could raise $30,000 or $40,000 in public trust money, I have the lawyer."
As the spring recreation season gets under way at Lake Merced, the scenario at San Francisco's backyard fishing hole is in a deeper state of disarray than any time in 15 years. It's becoming a multiheaded monster. The water quality and lake habitat are in peril, yet at the same time, the opportunities for recreation are degenerating like an old wooden bridge coming apart.
In a tour with Dave Lyons, 81, The Examiner's longtime field scout, he showed how the Merced Impoundment has a clean, blue-green sheen to it, while the North Lake and South Lake (which are connected by a pipe) are colored a seasick olive-green.
"Look at that," Lyons pointed out. "You know what's happening? They're trying to keep the lake levels up by getting the storm runoff off the streets last winter, and that put a lot of crud into the lake."
Lyons has hit on the truth. In a decision by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission last winter, a vote was made to divert more water into the lake via the Vista Channel, primarily storm runoff, which would include street runoff.
Cadagan confirmed that, and added that he is outraged that there is no groundwater management plan at Merced "to control the well pumpers."
"It didn't take me too damn long to figure it out, that they're pumping like crazy," Cadagan said. "They're not entitled to use the public's water. It's a terrible frustration. There is no justice in San Francisco politics. I know I'm right, but it doesn't do any good.
"I can't get these people to admit that there is a relationship between lake levels and the pumping from the aquifer by anybody, Daly City and the golf courses."
He said only a public trust lawsuit would force the San Francisco PUC and Recreation & Parks Department to address those "five thirsty kids with five straws."
But the problems do not stop there.
The former concessionaire jumped ship at the end of April when its contract ran out. The new concessionaire, Chor Lee, who owns the Boathouse Restaurant and has never before run a recreation program, has been slow to establish a new operation. Lee has managed to provide a few old rowboats for rent, but none come with electric motors, which are needed by some seniors.
The phone at Lake Merced now goes unanswered each morning, the first time that has occurred in 40 years. When I finally did get through about noon, the employee answered, "I don't know anything." There is no bait, no tackle, though in a conversation at his Boathouse Restaurant, Lee promised, "Everything that was here before we will do."
Then he said, "We'll see how the business goes and then we'll know what we need. I don't want to make a big commitment because my lease with The City is only for three years."
That comment does not exactly inspire visions of greatness looming in the future.
Lee also said he will start selling daily fishing permits and, once the money comes in, will negotiate to purchase rainbow trout from private fish hatcheries for special stocks. Again, nothing is imminent. Right now, that fund is near zero and it is difficult to imagine that many people would show up to buy the permit given this spring's water quality problems.
Lake Merced is a vital public resource since it is the only public recreation lake within a 15-mile range of 2 million people, and also within close proximity of thousands of youngsters and seniors for low-cost fishing. In the mid-1980s, Lake Merced was called "the crown jewel of urban fishing programs" by Field & Stream magazine, and "the richest trout lake in California" by the Department of Fish and Game.
It has been called a lot of other things in the past few years, because of the array of problems that are still unsolved. In addition to water quality and lake levels, there is also rampant tule growth that blocks shore access, inoperable boat hoists (which wouldn't reach open water even if repaired), docks that are breaking up or sitting in tules and a bathroom that looks like Kosovo.
Becky Ballinger of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department said they were pleased with the transition with the new concessionaire.
"On Lake Merced, we are pleased there is not an interruption of services," Ballinger said. "We want to be sure that people will be able to fish. I understand the trailer (for sales of tackle, bait and snacks) is arriving Wednesday."
Information: Jerry Cadagan, Committee to Save Lake Merced (water quality), (415) 456-8411; John Plummer, Friends of Lake Merced (recreation), (650) 991-0409; S.F. Recreation & Parks, (415) 831-2783; Lake Merced Boating & Fishing, (415) 681-2727.
©1999 San Francisco Examiner