Paradise Found (Almost)

Watching a snowy egret dodge  trash along the shore, one finds  it hard to imagine that Oakland’s Lake Merritt was once a paradise for fish and birds. Only a few decades ago, the lake  was fed by four creeks, its depth ranging six to nine feet as it drained and swelled with San Francisco Bay’s tides. In 1870, the lake—actually a tidal lagoon—was named the nation’s first wildlife refuge, becoming a model for the national  park system.
But as the city filled in marshland along the lake’s perimeter, tidal flow was restricted. With less seawater flushing the lake out, water quality deteriorated. Several fish kills filled the lake with rotting striped bass. Though constrained tidal flow is still a problem, trash also threatens the lake’s health. Volunteers pull between one and ten thousand pounds of refuse from the lake every month.
“It’s like tilting at windmills,” says Richard Bailey, executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute. According to Bailey, volunteers fight an endless battle against cigarette butts, plastic bags, and “huge quantities of styrofoam.” Over the years, lake cleanups have turned up furniture, car parts, TV sets, and once, a set of dentures.
In March and April, the Oakland City Council approved design contracts for two lake projects—a new boathouse and major restructuring of the 12th Street lanes, making way for a five-acre park and expanded bike and walking paths. (Don’t hold your breath; construction won’t begin until June 2006.) The 12th Street project alone will eat up a $43 million chunk of Oakland’s Measure DD, a $198 million bond measure voters passed in 2002. Thanks to DD, the city has already installed runoff filters, minimizing the need for trash removal. Eventually, most of the lake’s seven square miles of urban watershed—covering an area from the Oakland hills to Piedmont and around the lake—will be filtered.
Today, if you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of the salmon, halibut, and shiner surfperch that make an occasional appearance in the lake. Bailey hopes the fish will become a regular feature once the gates from the channel to the bay are widened as part of the new 12th Street project. “It’s a slow process,” Bailey warns, but he predicts that over the next decade Oaklanders will see a much healthier Lake Merritt.

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