After So Much Use And Abuse, Southern Arizona's Lakes Have Turned Nasty.
By Lee Allen
AUGUST 28, 2000: Southern Arizona water-lovers who like to fish and boat at the five nearby lakes are all dressed up with no place to go. Like looking for lunkers in all the wrong places.
Peña Blanca lake is a mess. Mercury contamination, heavy silting and a washed-out launch ramp have virtually quarantined the lake. Arizona Game and Fish biologists all maintain that Peña Blanca "is the place to be right now if you want to catch big bass." But you can't launch a boat to fish for them. Or eat them if you do catch a keeper.
At Parker Canyon lake, the rapidly growing northern pike are eating up everything else in the lake. Recent Game and Fish surveys show a diminishing population of all other gamefish species as the predator pike bring terror to tiny trout and bad news to baby bluegill.
Arivaca Lake, the area's traditional catch-a-BIG-bass waterway, has died its second death in two years, suffering an early July algae bloom and fishkill similar to the disaster a year ago that nearly wiped out the lake, once known as "The Hawg Pen" for its large bass.
Which leaves Patagonia Lake State Park, a 265-surface-acre impoundment with 11 miles of recreational shoreline, to handle its usual warm-weather full-house conditions as well as an overflow of anglers and water-based funseekers who have nowhere else to go.
"When that monster storm cell parked itself on top of Mount Lemmon in July 1999, the lake got an incredible amount of rainfall through a naturally unstable watershed," says Will Hayes, G&F Fisheries Program Manager.
Rose Canyon Lake took on hundreds of yards of silt in the storm, losing as much as 15 percent of its surface acreage, according to Steve Romero of the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Catalina Ranger District. "This was the biggest gullywasher in the past 40 years," he says. "The resulting erosion, about a thousand truckloads of sand and sediment, is just part of the natural process."
The only options at this point are to let nature take its course, leaving the lake alone to fill in completely with sediment, or give it some maintenance assistance. Forest Service officials are performing environmental and economic analyses now before they recommend draining and dredging the lake and starting over again. "There comes a point in time with all our aging area lakes," says Romero, "where you have to intervene and provide some attention to keep things healthy and running right."
"Our target implementation date would be October 2001," says Hayes. "We would remove the bag limit for trout in September and let anglers keep as many fish as they wanted. Then, when the campground closed for the season in October, we would dredge the lake and truck out the silt. Beyond that, we'd pray for rainfall from an El Niño winter to fill the lake before bringing in the hatchery truck in March 2002, restocking and bringing Rose Canyon back on line."
Which means that water-seeking Tucsonans looking to take their traditional hot-weather trips to mountain Milepost 17 will have to look elsewhere.
To make matters worse, flooding in June undercut an extended section of the roadway leading to the launch ramp, making it unsafe; it has been closed down indefinitely. "A ferocious early season storm was responsible," says Hayes. "All you can do in cases like this is stand by, hope for the best and deal with the clean-up as rapidly as possible." The best-case scenario has the launch ramp open again by Labor Day. Worst case brings the lake back on line to boaters by October, the start of the regular trout stocking season.
However, there's more adversity to deal with. Since 1995, signs posted around the lake warn of mercury contamination from upstream mining claims. Anglers are advised to practice catch-and-release protocol and, with the exception of freshly stocked trout, to avoid eating fish from Peña Blanca. Game and Fish and Forest Service authorities speculate the mercury contamination will be around for the foreseeable future.
"When storms flood canyons in the Pajarito Mountains," says Hayes, "mercury-contaminated soil from the gold and silver mines of the early 1900s is transported into the lake." Old mine tailing ponds were dug out last fall and thousands of yards of contaminated soil carted off, but state officials predict it will be from five to 10 years before normal non-toxic conditions return.
It's doubly unfortunate that Peña Blanca is in such a world of hurt right now because it's the place to be for big bass. Fisheries management efforts, begun in 1992 with limits on the size and number of bass that anglers were allowed to take home, are producing the desired results. "If you're looking for bigger bass in southern Arizona, for the time being, this is where you want to be," says G&F fisheries specialist Don Mitchell. "If you want to catch fish in the five-pound-and-up range, it's at this lake," he says, basing his opinion on recent G&F electroshock surveys that show a healthy population of larger fish.
These fish are like finned equivalents of teenagers--aggressive eating machines that require constant feeding. They can grow to 40 pounds. And they're changing the character of the lake.
Parker Canyon, a scenic getaway at the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains, was once known as a spot where anglers could take home some stocked rainbow trout, an occasional largemouth bass or even a record-setting sunfish. Now the illegally introduced pike are consuming everything they can find. "Just about every northern we've caught over 20 inches in length has an 8- to 12-inch trout in its stomach," says Mitchell. "That's pretty good evidence that long skinny fish, built like torpedoes with sharp teeth and clamp-like jaws, like to chase down and eat the slower silver trout raised in a hatchery."
"The closest spot in Arizona to fish for pike used to be northern mountain lakes near Flagstaff," Mitchell says. "We suspect that someone who likes to fish for pike brought a few home from up north and introduced them into this lake about three years ago so they could have their favorite fish close at hand." Early unofficial estimates predict that selfish and misguided act of public resources management could cost taxpayers as much as $750,000 to restore the waterway to pre-pike conditions.
In order to accomplish that, the 125-surface-acre lake would have to be drained and poisoned, a move that would kill all fish in the lake and take the popular spot out of circulation for an undetermined length of time. Public hearings on lake options will be held in Tucson, Sonoita and Sierra Vista on September 5, 6 and 7. Meeting sites have yet to be announced.
As a point of reference, the California Game and Fish Department faced an almost identical problem in 1998 at the 4,000-acre Lake Davis near Portola, drawing down and treating the large lake with a combination of the chemical rotenone and a dispersant. While birds and mammals were unaffected, the product combination did its job in the water, killing the pike, as well as all other fish in the lake--and all fish in a 5-mile stretch of a tributary creek. Chemical residues hung on for nearly nine months before the waters could successfully be restocked.
"Historically, Arivaca has a high nutrient level," says Hayes, "just one of the reasons this 90-acre body of water produced such large fish." Those conditions backfired in June 1999 when an algae bloom depleted the lake's oxygen supply, resulting in the death of more than 20,000 fish. Authorities could do nothing but watch as, for the second time in the lake's 30-year history, natural conditions combined to nearly wipe out angling resources. "The largemouth bass population took a huge hit in that fishkill," says Mitchell. "I feel comfortable in saying there aren't any really big fish left."
If any large fish did escape the 1999 devastation, they got wiped out in the most recent fishkill just weeks ago. G&F biologist Heidi Blasius had been conducting regular water sample monitoring at the lake and could do nothing but wait for the other shoe to drop as conditions kept deteriorating.
"Just like last year, the lake began to smell like rotten eggs and turned pea-soup green with algae dying in the backs of coves," she said. Sometime about the July Fourth weekend, anglers began to call in reports of dead fish on the shoreline, confirming the latest kill. "It's our hope that the smaller fish that survived last year, those 10-inch half-pound bass, will again be able to get by on less oxygen and will survive this summer, too," says Hayes. That's a far cry from the 11-pound, 8-ounce bass that set a lake record in 1984.
"We won't see any improvement until October or November when the water temperatures begin to cool off," says Hayes. Continuing environmental unpredictability, like the possibility of a return to normal winter rainfall patterns, is expected to keep the lake offline until the fall of 2001 at the earliest.
Fishing fanatics who dearly loved that lake have felt its loss keenly. "This was more than just a fishing hole," says Mark Paris, owner of Baja Tackle & Marine, who fished Arivaca in the glory days, catching and releasing bass up to 10 pounds. "When that lake died," he says, "it was like part of us died too." Paris has collected about $4,000 in donations from outdoor enthusiasts to defray the cost of restocking the lake when conditions improve. However, G&F has announced an indefinite hold on restocking plans. "We're going to have to wait at least another whole year," says Hayes.
From the east side of this lake, which is fed year-round by the cottonwood-shaded Sonoita Creek, past Hangman's Cove and Ash Canyon to the dam and spillway, this body of water is already crowded. More than 250,000 visitors used Patagonia Lake State Park last year. Nearly three quarters of them went fishing for trout, largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill and green sunfish. "This is a solid all-around waterway," says Mitchell. "With its continual input from the creek, the lake level doesn't fluctuate much, and that consistency helps produce a good number of quality-sized bass and good-sized catfish."
To make fishing even better, Game & Fish officials as well as angling and sportsmens' clubs have conducted several habitat improvement programs over the last decade. They have sunk old Christmas trees and concrete blocks with rebar to provide fresh groundcover for fish to live in or feed from.
More than 60 percent of the visitors go boating. Generally they use the deeper west end where wakeless speed limits don't apply, allowing larger boats, bigger motors and faster traffic as well as jet boats and water skiers.
Whitetail deer still roam the hillside, and great blue herons walk the shoreline. Birdwatchers with binoculars can add to their log book with a variety of birds from vultures to vermilion flycatchers. Lakeside hikers stroll a beautiful creek trail, while the less ambitious hang around cook stoves at the 70 developed campsites, the picnic area with ramada-covered tables and grills or the swimming beach.
To make the outdoor experience a bit easier--"roughing it" is generally a euphemism at this lake--a general store is open throughout the week offering boat rentals, fishing licenses and bait and tackle as well as beverages, food and ice. A marina launch ramp offers a floating dock nearby, a handy fish-cleaning station, and modern restrooms with hot showers.
No wonder, then, that Patagonia crowds are expected to increase as regular outdoor recreationalists can no longer visit some of their other familiar sites.
"We've got so much broke, we can't fix it all right away," says Hayes, sighing. "But that's the hand that was dealt to regional fisheries management and it's the hand we've got to play. In our five Southern Arizona lakes, what we have is what we've got and that's all we're going to get. La Niña winters are harder on our lakes than any other natural event I've seen in my 20 years working Tucson-area waterways. We just have to incorporate these environmental curveballs into our long-range plans to manage and protect local lakes with even more tenacity."
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