Officials resigned to state’s explosive plan to kill fish

By Don Thompson, The Associated Press
Monday April 15, 2002

Plumas County officials say Lake Davis must be blasted to get rid of foriegn breed of northern pike 


SACRAMENTO – No one particularly likes the state’s plan to crisscross scenic, mountain-rimmed Lake Davis with explosives in order to save it. 

But officials in Plumas County say that’s a lot better than poisoning the Sierra Nevada reservoir, as the state Department of Fish and Game did a few years ago in a futile effort to eradicate voracious foreign northern pike that are eating the local trout. 

The department plans to lay 1,000 feet of detonation cord around an acre of the lake northeast of Sacramento April 24, weather permitting, then light the fuse. 

There won’t be fish flying through the air, said spokesman Steve Martarano, but “it’ll still have pretty good bang for the buck.” 

Pressure from the underwater explosion will kill nearby fish and amphibians of all kinds. If it works, the department wants to blow up 10 acres at a time, as many as 15 more times over the next two years, aiming for the shallows where little pike grow into big toothy pike. 

“We’re optimistic, in a strange sort of way,” said Portola Mayor Bill Powers. This, even though “rumors abound that the det cord itself will contaminate the entire drinking water supply or that it might even contaminate the air somehow.” 

State officials have been careful this time to publicly address those concerns. For instance, a government scientist told residents the pollutants in the thousand feet of clothesline-like explosive cord are about the same as if a 12-ounce beer can full of gasoline was poured into the more than 4,000-acre lake, Powers said. 

The test shot is to make sure there are no lasting environmental effects, said Martarano. Water and air samples will be taken, the dead fish will be counted and each dead trout quickly replaced with two catchable-size hatchery trout. 

The response has been far better than when the department dumped 50,000 pounds of the chemical rotenone into the lake in 1997, killing most animal life — but not the resilient pike population. 

For a time, signs in restaurants warned that Fish and Game employees weren’t welcome. Portola’s school children were bused into Sacramento to protest at the state Capitol. 

The poisoning cost $2 million, and residents and local governments won $9.2 million in reparations from the state. Nearby wells still are being monitored to make sure the chemical doesn’t show up in residents’ drinking water. 

State officials learned their lesson, said former county supervisor Fran Roudebush, who chairs the public Lake Davis Coalition as well as the Lake Davis Steering Committee made up of federal, state and local officials. 

The department opened an office in Portola and staffed it with four professionals, including Powers’ wife, Lori, a longtime resident. 

“They live among us, the children go to school here, they’re buying homes here,” said Roudebush. “It makes a huge difference.” 

Not to say there hasn’t been more controversy, particularly over the Plumas County Board of Supervisors’ secret proposal last fall to the state Department of Water Resources to drain the lake and sell the water. 

County Supervisor B.J. Pearson said the state will eventually have no choice but to drain down the lake, then poison the remaining water to eradicate the pike. The state can’t possibly detonate enough explosives fast enough to keep up with the burgeoning pike population, he said. 

“It won’t even slow the pike down,” Pearson said of the department’s efforts. “It’s a joke — Fish and Game’s just up here treading water.” 

But residents at a public hearing in February denounced Pearson’s proposal to drain the lake as both impractical and devastating to the region’s tourism economy. An assemblyman who had planned to offer the idea in legislation dropped it, and state officials quickly distanced themselves. 

“We’ve had some really wild ideas — like we’re going to channel lightning into the lake. We’re not sure if God was in on that plan,” said Powers. “Every scenario we’ve had has had some nightmares attached to it.” 

The pike were discovered illegally planted in the lake in 1994, and are California’s only population of the Midwestern fish. 

Since then, residents tried to fish out the pike, a lost cause given that they reproduce at what Martarano called “an amazing rate” — 10,000 eggs per pound of fish. Fish and Game hired nine seasonal employees and a commercial fishing boat last summer to catch the fish with electric probes and an assortment of nets. They snagged 6,358 pike. 

The state is spending more than $500,000 a year on pike control efforts, including an estimated $200,000 on the latest plan. 

The big fear is that the pike will escape downstream, devastating endangered salmon populations throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its contributing watersheds across Northern California. 

Detonation cord was previously used in California to kill fish threatening salmon in the Eel River on the North Coast. But Fish and Game officials harbor no hope that it will be enough to kill every pike in Lake Davis. 

“Short of a magic bullet ... there’s nothing that’s going to wipe them all out,” said Martarano. “We’re really trying to control and contain and make sure they don’t get out of the lake.”