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Angler's Anguish

A prominent local author says the city's Parks and Recreation Department is to blame for a recent fishkill at Lakeside Lake

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If you visit Lakeside Lake anytime soon, do not enter from the downwind side--unless the smell of decomposing fish is a turn-on.

The sixth fishkill in the last 12 years at the city-owned recreational watering hole took place two weeks ago, and bloated carp and catfish continue to float to the surface to join the carcasses of bluegill and minnows that line the 15-acre facility. Workers skimmed off 36,000 pounds of detritus from the lake, with dead fish amounting to nearly a ton of that total.

"This most recent kill is the latest chapter in the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department's chronic abuse of what was once one of the state's aquatic gems," says Tucson native Guy Sagi. The author of Fishing Arizona, Sagi profiled declining conditions in a Tucson Weekly exposé years ago ("Queasy-Catch Stew," June 19, 1997). "An Arizona Game and Fish survey once listed this eastside waterway as home to the state's highest recreational day-use by young anglers."

A spot check last week showed five youth, two ducks and lots of dead fish. Frequent fisherman Marcus Vasquez, whose catch bucket contained one disoriented koi and a few crawdads, said, "When the lake was healthy, we used to do pretty good. Today, the water is dirty and smelly, and a lot of the fish are dead. I don't know if any fish are managing to adapt to current conditions, but it doesn't look good."

The city bought the lake at Stella Road and Sarnoff Drive from private owners in April 1973. Prior to 1990, all was happy here--until treated wastewater was first added. According to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality records, some 45,000 gallons of treated wastewater is now added to Lakeside Lake every day. The first fishkill at the 15-feet deep lake occurred in the fall of 1992; the second in 1995. Encore in 1997, 1998 and 2000. When game fish first came to the surface upside down--barely a month after the first reclaimed water was pumped in from the sewage treatment plant--officials were forced to suspend stocking the popular urban fishery because of a pH level toxic enough to quickly kill the hatchery transplants.

"City officials continue to engage in deliberately confusing scientific rhetoric to avoid public uproar," says Sagi. "Although they profess to be working toward a solution (like the $200,000 aeration system installed two years ago), Tucson's eastsiders no longer have a place to fish and haven't had (one) since effluent was first added."

Parks and Recreation spokesmen attribute the latest kill to the July 17 storm runoff that sent 70 acre-feet of water down Atterbury Wash, bringing tree branches, leaves and other organic matter into the lake. Hydrologists estimated up to an inch and a half of rain fell in one hour, resulting in 10-year flood conditions.

"Storm runoff has always been a threat at Lakeside," says Parks Department Facilities Coordinator Sterling Ford, "because watershed overflows bring in runoff that stirs up dead plant material on the lake bottom, sending oxygen levels plummeting and killing the fish population."

With all but one of the recorded fish kills occurring during the monsoon season, Eric Swanson, urban fishing program manager for Arizona Game and Fish, says, "We're resigned to thinking of this lake as a nine-month fishery--instead of a year-round facility--and we're trying to do the best we can."

"Not good enough," fumes Sagi. "While Game and Fish experts, who, unlike the city, actually understand fisheries' biology, have to list runoff as the ultimate culprit, it's like a doctor required to list heart failure on the death certificate when it was years of heavy smoking that was the true reason for the patient's demise. Heavy runoff may have delivered the final blow in the most recent episode, but the real blame lies in the fact that Parks and Recreation has, for more than a decade, ignored the recommendations of professional aquatic biologists at Game and Fish. The stench of their excuses is every bit as bad as the treated sewage they continue to dump into a lake once enjoyed by thousands of anglers.

"Treated wastewater is to blame for these fishkills," Sagi continues, "and city officials knew that years ago, evidenced by the fact that they even added sulfuric acid, copper-based chemicals and dye packets to reduce the waterway's pH levels. ... It's time the city (officials) admit their high school-like chemistry experiment on the eastside is a dismal failure."

Susan Basford, acting parks and recreation east district administrator, says Sagi needs to "slow down."

"Mr. Sagi is not all wet in his contention that effluent, with its additional nutrients, has a deleterious effect at this time of year, but we can't get past the fact that this lake was designed as a retention basin, and things like this happen when we get exceptionally heavy rains."

Facilities Coordinator Ford, who manages the lake, says, "We think we can control the algae part of the problem with our aeration system, but what we can't control are unusual events offered up by nature--just part of the inherent difficulties of proactively managing an urban waterway stuck within a watershed."

"Still not good enough," retorts Sagi. "Until Parks and Recreation admits the error of their ways by continuing to utilize treated wastewater, the best advice I can give is to flush twice--it's a long way to Lakeside Lake."

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