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The thing that ate Lake Murray

How do you get rid of hydrilla and keep it out?

City employees have gotten on the airboat and have shoved off when Murphy runs down shouting, “Wait! Wait!"
  • City employees have gotten on the airboat and have shoved off when Murphy runs down shouting, “Wait! Wait!"
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

“Here’s a cancer right in the middle of the city, and it’s untreated; it’s even been allowed to fester. And there’s been almost complete official and media silence on the whole thing for four years. . . .”

Robert Simmons: “That lake was the most heavily used recreational area in the city, with the exception of the ocean.”

Robert Simmons: “That lake was the most heavily used recreational area in the city, with the exception of the ocean.”

When he talks about Lake Murray, Robert Simmons’s voice alternately betrays anger and frustration, emotions that in this case are easy to understand. A professor of law at the University of San Diego and a homeowner in the San Carlos area, Simmons has watched the lake all but wither and die right around the comer from his house.

Les Sonder: “As far as we know, there isn’t any hydrilla in Lake Ellis."

Les Sonder: “As far as we know, there isn’t any hydrilla in Lake Ellis."

“That lake was the most heavily used recreational area in the city, with the exception of the ocean,” he continues. “There were people from all over the greater San Diego area who made use of it for fishing, boating, jogging.... I used to run around it myself, and I took my sons fishing there. Sometimes they caught something and sometimes they didn’t, but it was a great place. Now we’ve been deprived of that lake indefinitely.”

Komeen. "If you get it on your hands, it’s just like snot."

Komeen. "If you get it on your hands, it’s just like snot."

Like a monster from another world, a plant has taken over Lake Murray and won’t give it back. Since 1976 a fast-growing aquatic weed called hydrilla has infested the city reservoir, rooting across nearly half of the lake’s bottom and, as it has elsewhere in the United States, defeating every attempt to eradicate it.

David Rylaarsdam acknowledges that pressure to reopen the lake will mount as the Komeen and Vapam treatments are successful.

David Rylaarsdam acknowledges that pressure to reopen the lake will mount as the Komeen and Vapam treatments are successful.

Officials worried that the hydrilla could spread to the city’s other reservoirs have closed the lake to all recreation, turning what was once hoped to be a pearl of the city’s park system into little more than a neglected, forgotten pond, San Diego’s version of the Dead Sea.

Simmons and others, however, are not convinced that hydrilla is the sole culprit. They charge that city, county, and stage agencies have moved slowly and ineffectively to cope with the problem, and that, with the control program currently being used, the city is not likely to regain the use of the lake — ever.

Dick Murphy: "I can understand that; a closed lake in San Diego is not as important as the Medfly."

Dick Murphy: "I can understand that; a closed lake in San Diego is not as important as the Medfly."

“Lake Murray has become a joke,” says Simmons, “but not a funny one. There has been a total lack of effective management of the problem.” And there is ample evidence to suggest that his charges are at least partly accurate.

Hydrilla. In 1976 a suspicious-looking weed sample was hoisted out of Lake Murray on a grappling hook.

Hydrilla. In 1976 a suspicious-looking weed sample was hoisted out of Lake Murray on a grappling hook.

The history of the war against hydrilla reads like a comedy of errors, a complex, nightmarish blend of bureaucratic foul-ups and natural adversity that no science-fiction writer could have dreamed up. When the plant was first discovered in California at Lake Ellis (near Marysville, north of Sacramento), state officials quickly made it a “target pest" and began a systematic search for it elsewhere. The ravages of the weed were well known from Florida, where in about sixteen years it spread through more than 250,000 acres of canals and waterways, rendering many of them useless. In 1976 a suspicious-looking weed sample was hoisted out of Lake Murray on a grappling hook and sent to Sacramento for identification. The weed was identified as elodea — a miscalculation, as it turned out, that was the first of a series by state and local officials.

Murphy has said that once the hydrilla is under control, boating and fishing on the lake could resume.

Murphy has said that once the hydrilla is under control, boating and fishing on the lake could resume.

In May of 1977 a new sample that had been forwarded to Sacramento was correctly identified as hydrilla, but by then the plant had grown to such proportions that it was beginning to choke off water outlets in the lake.

Ironically, hydrilla had arrived in San Diego at almost exactly the same time as plans to develop Lake Murray into a sort of Mission Bay East. In March of 1976, the San Diego Union reported that a specially appointed citizen's task force recommended to the city council that the lake, a back-up city reservoir, be exploited for its potential as a recreational resource. Noting that the lake was close to the urban center of San Diego, the task force urged the development of a variety of recreational programs there, including fishing, rowing, sailing, and even swimming (not currently allowed in city reservoirs). Also envisioned around Lake Murray was an overnight campground, a trail system, picnic areas, and even a “complex” of tennis courts and softball fields similar to existing recreation centers in other parts of the city. A public meeting was held to discuss the task force’s recommendations in April of 1976, and that was as far as the plan got when hydrilla suddenly appeared on the scene.

Hydrilla is one of the world's most effective plants at staying alive. In the survival sweepstakes, it holds a winning ticket. A native of Southeast Asia, it can survive on only one percent sunlight (most aquatic plants need ten or fifteen percent), and it has been reported to grow up to two inches in a single day. It quickly outgrows most other aquatic plants and then dooms them by spreading in a mat across the surface of the water, screening out most of the available sunlight and making boating impossible. It also displaces huge amounts of water, which cuts down on the number of fish that can survive in a given area; and as it dies each year, rotting hydrilla uses up much of the oxygen in the water, often killing the remaining fish.

The male plant has never been imported into the United States, but female hydrilla plants here don’t perceive this as a problem. They can regenerate from tiny fragments of themselves. Hydrilla also produces tubers on its roots which are capable of resprouting mature plants. Since the tuber lies below ground, they are effectively protected from most chemicals that might otherwise kill the plant; and they can lie dormant for long periods of time, re-sprouting in newly inundated areas that have been dry for ten years or more.

The weed looks like an ordinary aquarium plant, and it has been primarily through the aquarium trade that hydrilla has spread. When it was first discovered in North America in 1960, growing wild in Florida’s Crystal River, it was actually harvested by hand and sold to aquarium supply dealers across the nation. No one knows for certain how it got into Lake Murray, but the accepted guess is that someone emptied an aquarium with hydrilla in it into the lake. The colored stones often used in aquariums can still be seen here and there around the shore.

Once hydrilla’s presence here was confirmed on May 28, 1977, the state food and agriculture department moved quickly to combat it, at least at first. Over the next few days the balance of the county’s reservoirs were checked for the weed, with negative results. In early June one of the state department’s weed control experts, Leslie Sonder, was dispatched to Florida to learn what he could about hydrilla control. Sonder returned two weeks later with depressing stories about 6000-acre lakes matted with the stuff from shore to shore, and said that Florida officials were virtually powerless to deal with it. "It quickly makes a believer out of you, that you want to do something about the plant,” he said recently of the hydrilla-choked waterways he saw in Florida. Since even a tiny fragment of hydrilla on a boat motor or fishing pole can spread the plant elsewhere, Sonder and other state officials recommended in July of 1977 that Lake Murray be closed to all fishing and boating. By the middle of that month the lake was officially quarantined.

Even so, there was no known way to get rid of the weed. At the time only one herbicide that would kill hydrilla was licensed in California for use in drinking water; but Florida’s experts had said the weed was so tough that chemicals were useless anyway. Nevertheless, the state department of food and agriculture began experimenting with various herbicides in the All-American Canal in Imperial County (one of the few other places in the state where hydrilla had been discovered). These experiments, which ran from July to December, 1977, yielded several chemicals which might have worked. Yet no chemical treatment of hydrilla was made until March, 1979, nearly two years after the weed was first discovered. Why the delay?

In effect, it was caused by the city's failure to advocate strongly a control program, coupled with the state's shortage of manpower and lack of priority for the project. “Personally, I don’t think they [the City of San Diego] realized what a serious problem they had,” a deputy county agriculture commissioner said recently. “They were cooperative, but the difference between cooperation and pushing it was crucial. They weren't pushing the department of food and agriculture to speed up the process.” And the records of the state health department, an agency which would have had to approve any chemical treatment of Lake Murray, show that the department of food and agriculture did not submit a plan for treating the lake's hydrilla with herbicides until January of 1979. “My apologies for the delay,” ran the letter accompanying that plan. “We have now resolved planning and logistic problems. ...”

For twenty-two months no herbicides were used. The lake’s level was lowered (draining it completely was considered too expensive) to dry out the hydrilla's roots and slow its reproductive rate; but because the city said it needed Lake Murray’s water in the spring, summer, and early fall months to meet peak water demands, the lowering took place only once a year instead of the three times a year recommended by the department of food and agriculture. In addition, the first “draw down,” in October, 1977, didn’t last long. Heavy rains soon refilled the reservoir, and by the time the rains let up the following spring, the city needed Lake Murray’s water again.

All that spring, summer, fall, and the following winter the hydrilla grew unchecked (with the exception of a “draw down” in the fall of 1978), but in March, 1979, the state finally got its act together: A special force of “hydrilla guerrillas” composed of some forty-eight city, county, and state employees assembled here and prepared to attack the weed for the first time with a herbicide. The hydrilla guerrillas had special hats and buttons which proclaimed their new titles, and their spirits were running high. “It was a great thing to be out on a lake, trying to get rid of a weed,” remembers one former county employee who was a hvdrilla guerrilla. Looking back on the experience now, however, she adds, “In a way, I think it’s funny: we can put computer circuits on a pinhead and a man on the moon, but we still can’t deal with this plant that occurs naturally on the earth.”

The assault began on March 6 with a budget of $158,000. In preparation, the lake’s level had again been drawn down about thirty feet to expose the hvdrilla, which in those days grew mostly in the fingers of the lake. Crews of eight people first measured the areas to be treated and then sprayed appropriate amounts of the herbicide, which is called Vapam and has an odor like “rancid hog urine,” according to one former county official. Vapam turns into a vapor when water is sprayed over it, and penetrates deep into the soil, killing both hydrilla roots and tubers. Near Murray Dam the lake shore was so steep that individual guerrillas had to be lowered by rope in order to spray crevices in the rock.

Before the treatment, state officials had predicted that the Vapam would eliminate ninety to ninety-five percent of the hydrilla. But when heavy rains began a few weeks later and canceled the whole project, a disappointed Les Sonder told the local media that only about one-third of the infested area had been sprayed. It had taken longer than expected to train the crews to measure the lake bottom and spray it, he admitted. The former county employee, who asked not to be identified, recalls that this was due in part to a lack of coordination among the agencies involved. “It was done as well as they could do it,” the employee said, “but the number of departments and agencies involved was bound to create communications problems. People’s egos are definitely involved. One guy thinks it should be done his way, and that’s the way he’s going to do it. When you’ve got five or six different bosses and they all answer to different people. . . .”

The assault officially ended on March 22, with about $30,000 of the $158,000 budget used up. The Vapam treatment was to have been resumed the following fall or winter, but those plans changed when the state was criticized for using the herbicide before adequately testing both application techniques and the chemical’s potential effect on potable water. In addition, state employees such as Sonder who were coordinating the fight were often called away to deal with other problems in other parts of the state. “I contacted the city off and on for years, every time I got really burned up about the situation,” Robert Simmons recalls. “They always took the position that the state was responsible. And the state was indifferent to the problem.” The net result during all this time was that very little was done. Over the winter of 1979-80, Lake Murray’s level was again lowered to expose the weed’s roots to the air, but other than that, no active effort was made until August of 1980, when a new chemical called Komeen was dumped into the lake. A relatively safe copper-sulphate compound, Komeen is a contact herbicide that kills the hydrilla leaves but cannot penetrate into the plant’s roots or tubers. The 1980 treatment was little more than an experiment, though, since Komeen must be applied every forty-five days to be effective, and only one application was made. Last October the lake's level was again drawn down, and in March, Vapam was sprayed on a number of test plots to try application techniques which some critics say should have been tried years ago. And that is how things stood until September 2 of this year, when city, county, and state employees again descended on Lake Murray for the latest round in the struggle, and found themselves surrounded by newspaper reporters, photographers, TV cameramen, an official from the city's water utilities department, and even a city councilman.

At 7:50 in the morning on September 2, Les Sonder stands near the edge of Lake Murray and watches a group of men bustling around a peculiar-looking craft beached on the shore. The craft, called an Aircat, is an airboat of the type used to patrol the Florida everglades; it can skim over sandbars, water reeds, or. if necessary, mats of hydrilla. The airboat has been stationed at Lake Murray more or less permanently since last year, and it is used for spraying Komeen into the lake whenever this is deemed appropriate. It is outfitted with a tank, pump, and a twelve-foot-long plastic pipe in front with ten nozzles, and right now it is being readied for spraying.

Sonder, who looks to be in his late fifties, is a tall, thin, soft-spoken man who gives an overall businesslike impression; he is here for one reason only, and that reason is to fight hydrilla. “It's probably about two feet off the lake bottom,” he tells me, holding his hand out to indicate the height for emphasis. “We applied Komeen forty-five days ago, and that’s how fast the hydrilla grows — about two feet every forty-five days. It’s not as bad now as it was a couple of years ago, though. When we first got started out here, ducks could have almost walked across the mats at the surface.”

A few minutes later, David Rylaarsdam, a deputy commissioner for the county department of agriculture, walks up and begins discussing strategy with Sonder. Rylaarsdam, in his midthirties, speaks thoughtfully, carefully, and quietly. He has blue eyes and blond hair to go along with his Dutch name, and he is scheduled to take over the directorship of the hydrilla battle here from Sonder. For now, though, he is content to let Sonder run the show. “Eighty acres will be treated,” Rylaarsdam says to me when I ask. “What we’re aiming for is one part per million of copper in that zone — that level is considered toxic to hydrilla. That’s also the acceptable limit in potable drinking water, and since we won’t be treating the whole lake, there’s a big margin for tolerance. But we’ve shut off the pumps from the lake temporarily anyway.” Pointing to plastic jugs floating here and there around the lake, Rylaarsdam goes on to explain that they indicate a water depth of thirty feet and mark the boundary of the area to be treated with Komeen. “We measured most of it yesterday because we wanted to be sure everything went smoothly today.”

It isn’t long before it becomes clear what Rylaarsdam means. At about 8:15 a crew from Channel 8 shows up and begins to set up in preparation for taping. Shortly after that, Councilman Dick Murphy arrives; Murphy, it turns out, has called a press conference to focus attention on Lake Murray’s condition and to publicize the latest effort to attack the hydrilla. He and the news crew from Channel 8 are soon joined by another crew from Channel 10, and finally by a representative of the city’s water utilities department who is in charge of recreational aspects of the city’s lakes and reservoirs (other reporters and photographers straggle in for the rest of the morning).

Meanwhile, Sonder and two city employees have gotten on the airboat and have shoved off to begin spraying when Murphy runs down to the edge of the lake shouting, “Wait! Wait! The TV cameras want to get a picture of you.” Sonder waits — you can almost hear him muttering to himself — while the TV crews scurry to set up, and soon cameras are whirring as Sonder steers the boat along the shore, spraying Komeen out of the nozzles attached to the front. The chemical is thick and bright purple, and Rylaarsdam, walking past me well away from the TV crews’ microphones, remarks, “It turns thicker when it comes in contact with water. That’s what it’s supposed to do, because you want it to sink to the bottom and stick to the plants; but boy, if you get it on your hands, it’s just like snot. Really hard to get off.”

Sonder soon motors off to do some real spraying, and then Rylaarsdam is called upon to give a seemingly endless number of interviews for the cameras, explaining what hydrilla is and what the application of Komeen is expected to do. The consensus among the TV people seems to be that this event is something important — after all, two TV crews and a city councilman are here — but none of them knows exactly why. “Why not just let it grow?’’ one interviewer wonders aloud, while another, possibly doing his best to turn up examples of inefficient government bureaucracy, . assails a county employee about the plastic marker floats in the lake. “How do you know that’s exactly thirty feet deep out there?” he inquires suspiciously. “It’s just an estimate, isn't it?” Unseen by the cameras during all of this, three young boys on the far side of the lake wander down to the shore and casually — and of course, illegally — start to fish.

Murphy is doing his share of interviews, too, and I finally catch him in a spare moment. “I became aware of this problem before I was a councilman, when I served on the city parks and recreation board,” he tells me. ‘‘And I must say, I was somewhat frustrated with the lack of progress. When I became a councilman I gained more clout, and I asked the state for a status report on what was going to be done next. They came back thirty days later and said, in effect, ‘Nothing' — that all their people had been pulled off hvdrilla to fight the Medfly. And I can understand that; a closed lake in San Diego is not as important as the Medfly. But still, it was kind of the last straw. I figured it was time to do something different.”

What Murphy did was to suggest the state train the city's workers in how to fight the hydrilla, and then turn over the task to the city. The state agreed, on the condition that the county retain supervision of the ongoing project, which is how Rylaarsdam came to be designated as the new project director. The irony of the city wanting to take over a program they failed to lobby for strongly in the past has not been lost on Rylaarsdam. ‘‘There’s been a total reversal of their position,” he noted recently. Nevertheless, the city’s increased involvement will at least insure the manpower to maintain a constant fight against the hydrilla, and that prospect encourages people like Robert Simmons. “We’ve gotten more out of Murphy in the last eight months than we did out of the city in the last four years,” he said when I contacted him. “And his interest should continue, if for no other reason than he’s a resident of this area, and he has kids of an age where they could use the lake.”

Murphy wanders off to get interviewed by someone else, and the TV crews begin taping shots of their own reporters standing on an abandoned concrete boat ramp nearby. One interviewer from Channel 10 tapes and re-tapes a segment which she ends by saying, “But if it’s any consolation, when the lake is re-opened it should be some great fishing” — and after three or four takes I still can't figure out what the word “it” refers to. Somehow, in the middle of all this, Rylaarsdam and Sonder (who has returned briefly to refill the airboat’s Komeen tank) manage to explain what the program for treating the hydrilla will be. Three or four times during the spring and summer Komeen will be applied in order to reduce the weed’s ability to produce tubers, the hardest feature of hydrilla to eradicate. In the fall the lake will be drawn down to expose the tubers and to allow the spraying of Vapam, and each March the city will be able to refill the reservoir in time to meet increasing water demands. New techniques of applying Vapam will be used (including covering the lake bottom with tarps after it has been sprayed, in order to get better penetration of the chemical into the soil), and the number of tubers per square meter will be counted regularly. “If we can lower the number of tubers out there, and then knock them back before they produce more tubers, then we’re home free, explains Sonder. “I feel confident that with this kind of treatment, in five to seven years the hydrilla will be eradicated to the point where the lake can be used for recreation.”

While the TV crews joke with Murphy and banter with each other about good “shots” that appeared on recent telecasts, the evil weed itself is lurking out beyond the shoreline, silently growing in the murky depths. It was still there later that morning, long after the councilman and the TV people had left, when the only activity around Lake Murray was Sonder and two other men in the Aircat, methodically spraying Komeen back and forth near the shoreline. Five to seven years is a long time, and the hydrilla guerrillas have been confident before without much result. “Personally,” Robert Simmons told me a few days later, “I have no confidence that we’ll get the lake back in the next seven years with the program they now have. Since early ’78 all they’ve said is that they’ll lower the lake and treat it with herbicides. It’s become sort of an endless refrain. And it’s a standing joke in our community that the drawing down of the lake always occurs just prior to the rainy season, when the rains just till it up again.”

Rylaarsdam, however, counters that drawing down the lake in the summer would actually spread the hydrilla, which reproduces more actively when the water is warm and which prefers depths of thirty feet or less. “Say we draw it down fifty feet in the summer. Then the next thirty feet down would be contaminated with hydrilla, and right now there’s nothing growing there. That would double the area that has to be treated, and increases our costs.”

But Simmons would like to see the lake drained completely, and when he says it’s the only way hydrilla will ever be eliminated from Lake Murray, he may be right. Northern California’s Lake Ellis, where hydrilla was discovered, was drained in the summer of 1979. The lake’s bottom was bulldozed and the soil hauled away at a cost of $3.5 million. The lake was refilled the following December, and incredibly, in the summer of 1980 a few hydrilla plants were discovered growing in it. But these have since been treated with herbicides, and according to Les Sonder, “As far as we know, there isn’t any hydrilla in Lake Ellis. They’ve got a beautiful lake now.” A private pond in San Diego’s North County was drained and bulldozed when hydrilla was discovered in it a few years ago, and Rylaarsdam says he “believes” this operation was one hundred percent effective. But both of these bodies of water are smaller and shallower than Lake Murray — Lake Ellis, for example, is only six feet deep and one-fourth the acreage — and anyway, draining Lake Murray might not even get rid of the hydrilla. According to Rylaarsdam, the chances of a few tubers surviving would be “pretty good” unless the lake was bulldozed and kept empty for ten or fifteen years, with repeated sprayings of Vapam. The cost of such an operation would be very high.

Simmons thinks draining the lake for a short period of time and bulldozing it is worth a try. “It can’t possibly work the way they’re handling it now,” he insists. Suggesting the costs could be held down by the participation of residents who live near the lake, Simmons, who is active in a citizen’s group called the San Carlos Area Council, went on, “Developers might donate the use of bulldozers — it’s tax deductible. And the community could contribute the labor, like we did for the Little League field here. This is the number-one priority in our community now. All we need is a little encouragement and leadership from the city."

Even if the fight against hydrilla continues for years, the question of what will become of the park once envisioned for Lake Murray remains. Murphy has said that once the hydrilla is under control, boating and fishing on the lake could resume, but the state and county are taking a more cautious approach. “As far as I’m concerned, unless it’s been totally eliminated, you just can’t take the risk of opening the lake,” says Rylaarsdam. “The possibility of infesting another reservoir is just too great. That’s reality. Some people say we should just put it under intensive control wherever it pops up, and live with it, but that means you’re going to be spending more and more money from here on out.”

Rylaarsdam acknowledges that pressure to reopen the lake will mount as the Komeen and Vapam treatments are more and more successful, and indeed, that pressure has already begun. Many of the residents of San Carlos are anxious for something to be done, and if they can’t have the lake itself back, they would at least like to have the property surrounding it. “Lake Murray is an eyesore,” says Ann MacCullough, a vice president of the San Carlos Area Council and a resident for six years. “When they drain the lake in the winter it looks like a moonscape. The weeds around it are not cut, and there are piles of dirt at the eastern shore, near Jackson Drive, that have been there for years. It’s supposed to be a park, but it doesn't look like one to me. The city has just let it go.” MacCullough would like to see the tennis courts, softball fields, and picnic areas once planned for the lake built — “There are few recreational facilities out here that are public,” she said — and her words are echoed by Robert Simmons. “For God’s sake, let’s have a chance to make use of it like we could before. Make it available as a lunching area, a jogging area, everything short of boating and fishing. This issue has brought the community together, and we’re willing to help out. The labor, the contacts — everything is there. What we’re saying to the city is, ‘Point us.'"

But Jim Brown, an official with the city’s water utilities department who manages the recreational aspects of the city’s lakes and reservoirs, says flatly that “we are not trying to operate the lake for recreation. We’re trying to patrol it and to preserve the major features of the landscaping, like the trees and so forth. It remains a quarantined lake.” Opening the lake to the mass public could conflict with the state’s guidelines for the quarantine, he points out, and make enforcement of the restrictions on fishing, swimming, and boating virtually impossible. Brown maintains that Lake Murray has “not been lost as a recreational resource to the community.” Joggers and walkers make use of the asphalt road that winds around the lake, and several elementary school picnics have been held there.

But a few picnics and a jogging track don't constitute much of a recreational area, and many of the residents of San Carlos regard Lake Murray instead as an aberration, a neglected and sometimes smelly “island” in their midst that they would rather avoid. When I visited the lake at sunset last Friday, for instance, it was nearly deserted. I parked my truck on Baltimore Drive, near a finger of the lake that extends almost to the street, and walked down an old dirt road toward the shore. A cottontail scampered off through sparse, tall, dry rabbitbrush that was interspersed here and there with prickly pear and almost nothing else. A lone jogger passed by below me on the asphalt road around the lake, and he was followed a moment later by another.

Near the shore the brush gave way abruptly to a barren, rocky strip of ground about thirty feet wide that ran all around the lake at the water’s edge. I walked out onto this strip, over big, round, mud-caked stones that made walking difficult, and stood for a few minutes watching the sunset. In a back yard far away, a mockingbird called. “When we moved in six years ago, you couldn’t help but look out at the lake and think, ‘This is very pretty,’ Ann MacCullough said not long ago. “I would like them to work on its appearance. I would like to see little boats on it again.” It was at sunset on July 17, 1977, that Lake Murray was officially closed. It has not been open since.

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