How California poisoned a small town

  • Lake Davis near Portola, Calif.

    Diane Sylvain
  • Portola residents stage predawn vigil on lakeshore

    Jane Braxton Little photo
 

PORTOLA, Calif. - The northern pike, a voracious species, has claimed what may be its biggest victim yet: this small town.

Officials of the Plumas County town of 2,200 residents say they have lost their backup water supply, half their tourism business and their reputation for a pristine mountain environment - all to the predatory pike.

But it is the California Department of Fish and Game they blame, not the fish. On Oct. 15, the department dumped chemicals into Lake Davis to rid it of the non-native species. Officials feared the pike proliferating in Lake Davis would migrate downstream through the Feather River into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. There they could devastate native trout and salmon along with California's multimillion-dollar commercial sportfishing industry.

"The aquatic resources of California were at risk," says Banky E. Curtis, a regional Fish and Game Department manager.

But the lake eight miles north of Portola is a major source of the town's drinking water as well as the centerpiece of its recreation economy. In the seven months since the poisoning, Portola has battled the state over municipal water shortages, public health problems and $400,000 it spent as a result of the pike project.

Just when they thought it couldn't get any worse, an angler caught a northern pike 60 miles below Lake Davis in the Middle Fork of the Feather River near Lake Oroville. The April catch, confirmed as a pike by state officials, adds insult to the injury caused to Portola by the $2 million project, says Plumas County Supervisor Fran Roudebush.

"Everything the Fish and Game Department did at Lake Davis and to this community was for nothing," Roudebush says.

Fish and Game officials have found no other pike in Lake Oroville, and until they find live fish they refuse to confirm the catch as evidence that pike have migrated downstream, says department spokesman Patrick Foy.

When northern pike first surfaced in Lake Davis in 1994, Plumas County residents were as angry as state officials. The Midwestern native, prized as a feisty sportfish, was apparently planted illegally in the Plumas County lake. The county has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the culprit.

Nevertheless, the poisoning was vehemently opposed by most of the rural county's population (HCN, 11/10/97). County officials tried and failed to stop it with a lawsuit. Portola councilman Bill Powers and three other residents tried to stop the poisoning through civil disobedience, chaining themselves to a lake buoy in the water.

But state workers persisted, dumping 64,000 pounds of powdered rotenone and 16,000 gallons of a fish-killing chemical into Lake Davis. All aquatic life in Lake Davis, including the pike, died.

Now the chemicals have seeped out of the lake and flowed five miles down Grizzly Creek toward the Feather River, leaving hundreds of dead fish in their wake.

The poisons also escaped into the air when operators held chemical hose nozzles above the surface of the water instead of below it. More than 80 people filed health complaints that included nausea and upper respiratory and skin irritations. The Department of Fish and Game was fined $250,000 for the creek poisoning and cited by a local air-quality district for violating public nuisance laws.

Moreover, Lake Davis still contains chemicals, despite assurances that it would be free of all toxins within eight weeks of the poisoning. State health officials will not allow the lake to be used for drinking water or permit fish to be restocked until the lake is free of all chemicals.

The Fish and Game Department has not paid for a backup water supply, despite its written commitment to cover those costs. That leaves Portola holding a $172,000 bill Portola City Administrator Jim Murphy calls "the equivalent of a father's failure to make court-ordered child support payments."

The nearly $400,000 in city costs related to the Lake Davis project represents 21 percent of Portola's annual budget, Murphy adds.

The repercussions widen

Despite promises of state assistance, local businesses that would normally be enjoying the start of a busy tourist season are reporting declines up to 50 percent because of uncertainty and fear about the lake. Two business owners say they will not open at all this summer - one of them, never.

"We're bitter. We're furious," says Christopher D. Stanton, a Portola physician. "Our drinking water was poisoned at gunpoint."

Portola has filed a $2 million claim against the state of California over the poisoning of the city's drinking water supply.

And on May 5, Plumas County District Attorney James Reichle filed misdemeanor criminal charges against the Fish and Game Department, Banky Curtis and two other agency employees. The charges include violations of state water laws in poisoning Lake Davis and allowing contaminants to seep into Grizzly Creek. The criminal case reflects a community still seething with anger.

"The level of arrogance that was exhibited by these people in handling this project was criminal," Reichle says.

Foy, the department spokesman, called the criminal charges a continuation of "the baseless legal challenges, personal attacks and inflammatory remarks" that have occurred over the history of the project. The department has gone to "extraordinary lengths' to address the economic impacts and water supply issues associated with the project, he says. As proof, Foy cited the over 1 million rainbow trout the department has planted this spring in streams near Lake Davis and its one-time action to open fishing season three weeks earlier than the rest of the state.

"The criminals here are the individuals that planted northern pike in Lake Davis, not the department or the employees," Foy says.

Murphy says the hostilities that have developed since the poisoning project could have been avoided by prompt answers to questions and action in place of promises.

"The state burned us," he says. "They show all the symptoms of a guilty party attempting to create a smokescreen to cover the actions ... Their unwillingness to assume responsibility for their mistakes led to this government boondoggle."

Jane Braxton Little writes from Plumas County, California.

You can contact ...

* California Department of Fish and Game, 916/358-2938;

* Portola City Council, 530/832-4216;

* Restore Lake Davis Coalition, 530/832-0217.