Laguna Niguel Park : County to Give Lake Fresh Start

Times Staff Writer

Sometime next weekend, one of Orange County's favored fishing holes will become one its biggest fish-less holes.

That's the hope, at least, of park officials, who last week began draining 82,780 gallons of water from Laguna Niguel Lake in the county-run Laguna Niguel Regional Park.

To save as many of the lake's fish as possible, the officials plan to let 40 eager anglers try to catch, in nets, all the bass, bluegills, catfish and crappies that they can, once the lake is reduced to a pond. The fish won't end up in the frying pan, though. The plan is to transport them in a specially built tanker truck to a new home in Irvine Lake.

"The (Department of) Fish and Game man says he's seen these things tried, and that they don't work very well. But we're very optimistic anyway," said Kathie Matsuyama, a landscape architect for the county.

No one knows how many fish will be found in the murky waters of the lake, which was known as Sulphur Creek Reservoir before it was stocked with game fish in the 1970s and became a county recreational site.

The draining of the lake and the ambitious fish relocation effort are part of a $1.6-million project to clean and refurbish the lake, the largest and most popular in the county park system.

The 44-acre, man-made body of water is literally choking on almost 10 feet of silt and runaway algae that threatens to turn it into a meadow eventually, said Bruce Buchman, senior ranger at Laguna Niguel Park.

Already, said Buchman, the poor condition of the lake has killed hundreds of fish. In 1976, he said, more than 2,000 fish suffocated when natural conditions churned the debris in the lake. Another 1,500 died in a similar "lake flipping" 5 years later.

Although the lake will be closed for 11 months for refurbishing, the rest of the park, including bike and horse trails, will remain open.

When the refurbishment is complete, the lake will not only be clean, it will have a new dike to make future cleaning easier, its island will be larger and planted with new trees and there will be improved access for fishermen.

The work will also involve resurfacing the face of the dam that created the lake and replacing the dam's head gate. In fact, it was the need to replace the head gate that launched the refurbishing project.

The head gate, a device that controls the flow of water into the dam, was discovered to be inoperable 4 years ago when state inspectors were examining the dam to see if it could withstand a major earthquake. Because the lake had to be drained anyway to replace the device, park officials decided to improve the lake itself while they were at it.

In addition to moving the fish, Buchman said, volunteers will find new homes for a flock of what he called "domesticated" birds--geese, cross-bred ducks and turkey-like birds called Muscovies--that have become so accustomed to being fed by park-goers that they have forgotten how to fend for themselves.

On Friday afternoon, with 52,000 gallons of water left in the lake, about two dozen of the birds waddled about on the expanding shoreline as workers operated three pumps that were removing water at a maximum rate of 4,000 gallons a minute.

The water is being routed down a natural flood channel through the park to nearby Aliso Creek, where it will flow to the ocean.

In addition to being a prime fishing spot, Buchman said, the lake is a major habitat for fowl that travel the Pacific flyway, the north-south route that birds in this region use for their annual migrations. About 43 different kinds of birds have been sighted at the lake by members of the local chapters of the Audubon Society.

Most of those birds are expected to leave temporarily for nearby lakes, Buchman said. But other animals that live in or near the lake, such as frogs and turtles, also will have to find another home.

Once most of the refurbishing is completed sometime in the fall, the lake will be allowed to fill with rainwater and runoff. How long that will take will depend on how much rainfall there is, Buchman said. When the lake was last drained in 1974, it took about 3 months for it to refill, he said.

That draining occurred shortly after the county took control of the lake from the Moulton Niguel Water District and was intended to replace treated water that had been stored there with fresh water. Fish were not removed from the lake then, Matsuyama said, because there probably were too few of them.

Full of Silt

Since that draining, she said, the lake has filled with silt from natural sources and sediment picked up in runoff from housing developments. The algae have been a problem since the first draining.

Buchanan said that the lake, which was originally about 25 feet deep at its deepest point, is now about 16 feet deep at that point. An estimated 40,000 cubic yards of material will be removed from around the dam head gate alone, said Mark Korkowski, project manager for Dutra Construction Co. of Rio Vista, the contractor for the work.

Once the draining is complete, he said, workers will begin the tedious job of drying out the silt so that it can be used to build up a trail along the eastern side of the lake and expand the island.

The fish relocation, which was the idea of the owner of a local sporting goods store, is tentatively scheduled for next weekend--or whenever the water is down to a suitable level. Rangers at the park said they are looking forward to the event.

"Just before last Christmas, a guy caught a 25-pound catfish, and someone once caught a 4-pound crappie," ranger Jude Weierman said. "It'll be interesting to see what's in there."

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