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Fixing Pinto Lake; Leaders hear problems, solutions for cleanup

Posted: Thursday, Sep 26th, 2013

Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian Robert Ketley, senior utilities engineer for the City of Watsonville, takes part in a discussion with various officials, politicians and others about the hazards of algae blooms at Pinto Lake City Park Monday.

As a gleaming white egret stood sentinel at the edge of Pinto Lake Monday morning, a great blue heron glided in on silent wings. Alighting nearby to wade in the water and hunt for food, its spindly legs rippled the mirror-like surface.

But the serenity of Pinto Lake City Park, underscored by warm sun, cool breeze and a quiet stillness, belied a toxic problem below the lake’s surface that is befuddling scientists and local politicians alike.

The deadly toxin, known as cyanobacteria, has been a problem in the lake since 2005, threatening humans and wildlife and making the lake all but off-limits for recreation.

The toxin has also been found along Corralitos Creek, Pajaro River and the San Lorenzo River.

The problem prompted a meeting at the lake Monday by several officials such as Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas and Senator Bill Monning, D-Carmel, researchers from UC Santa Cruz and Cal State Monterey Bay and John Ricker, director of Santa Cruz County Resource Conservation. A handful of Watsonville residents also attended, as did representatives from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Water Resource Control Board.

“We care about this place,” Alejo said. “We want to put our heads together to see what solutions we can come up with.”

Those solutions won’t be easy.

Too large for mediation methods used in other lakes such as removing mud on the bottom and aerating the water, Pinto Lake poses a unique challenge for researchers tasked with ameliorating the problem.

Already efforts have paid off, such as encouraging farmers to reduce the amounts of runoff from their crops, said UC Santa Cruz Professor of ocean sciences Raphael Kudela.

“This helps people realize that this is a solvable problem,” he said.

CSUMB environmental science professor Marc Los Huertos said the lack of state and federal funding for such projects means that local groups have to step in and help with cleanup efforts.

Specifically he referred to the Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act, a measure expected to be on the November 2014 ballot. If approved it would create $11.1 billion to retool the state’s water system, reduce pollution and protect wildlife habitat.

But such a project won’t work unless someone is paying attention to local issues, he said.

“The water bond needs to have watershed coordinators,” he said.

The major stumbling block, however, is a lack of funds.

“We’re hoping to tap into state and local funding,” Alejo said. “Hopefully that will help with the mitigation efforts.”

A workable solution could have broader implications, allowing scientists to remove the bacteria from water statewide, Alejo said.

Caused among other things by warm temperatures, agricultural runoff and leaky septic systems, cyanobacteria has plagued the lake for years, and has been studied in earnest since 2009. A year later, more than 20 sea otter deaths were attributed to the bacteria, the source of which was thought to be Pinto Lake.

A similar study by the Department of Fish and Game Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz was launched in 2007 when 11 sick and dead sea otters were recovered along the shore of Monterey Bay.

Studies have found that marine clams, mussels and oysters — filter feeders that inadvertently consume the bacteria — are in turn eaten by otters.

The bacteria are also a threat to humans, possibly causing skin ailments, vomiting, diarrhea, allergic reactions and liver damage.

Watsonville Senior Utilities Engineer Robert Ketley said the problem is not too far gone to reverse it, and stressed that stakeholders working together can “significantly reduce” the toxic blooms within three years.

“We can fix this,” he said.

Ketley said that the scientists and researchers who study the lake have an answer to the problem, but lack the funding to fully implement it.

Still, the meeting served its purpose, Ketley said.

“I got definite signs of commitment from the legislators,” he said. “They got fully apprised about the lake and the work we’ve been doing.”

We want to return Pinto Lake to what it was,” Ketley added. “A safe recreational resource for the community to enjoy.”

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