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Lagoon Lament : Environment: Clogging of the San Elijo Lagoon has meant the death of saltwater fish and the proliferation of insect pests.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes Cathy Gill feels like a bit player in a West Coast remake of an old thriller, something like “Gnarly Gnats from the Lost Lagoon.”

She’ll be standing outside her Solana Beach condominium, taking in the breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean and adjacent San Elijo Lagoon, when the black hordes of insects will suddenly make their descent, driving everyone indoors, seemingly turning day into night.

“They just swarm around your head,” she said, flailing her hands in wild swatting motions. “They fly into your nose, your mouth, your ears, even your eyes if you’re not careful.

The gnats are so small, so relentless, so plentiful, that dozens can fly cleanly through the tiny holes of a screen door to plague the residents within, homeowners say. “When I barbecue out back, I slide the screen door quickly, just enough to slip in and out,” says condo owner Lois Schwartz.

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“But they can even swarm in through the holes. Even with company around, I’m running around the room with a vacuum cleaner trying to suck them up.”

For dozens of homeowners living next to the ailing San Elijo Lagoon, this local breed of tiny flying insect is a bothersome fact of life.

The thriving gnats, homeowners say, signal a much larger problem at San Elijo Lagoon.

In recent years, the mouth of the lagoon in the southwest corner of Encinitas has been slowly choked off, largely because of a 1987 storm that drove tons of beach sand and cobblestone into the narrow channel that leads to the estuary.

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Although the county has removed sand that clogged the lagoon’s mouth on at least one occasion since then, funding shortages have precluded more extensive dredging of the lagoon channel.

Meanwhile, as the natural tidal flow of seawater has been cut off, experts say, the saltwater lagoon has slowly been evolving into a stagnant freshwater lake.

The subtle changes have killed off many of the saltwater fish and crustaceans that thrived there only a few years ago--while the freshwater larvae of the pesky gnats--or midges--have steadily multiplied.

Neighbors say that, although the bugs have always maintained their presence during the peak summer months, they have recently begun appearing from the first warm glint of spring through late autumn.

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Last week, at the urging of homeowners and environmental groups, the county began a $45,000 project to dredge 600 feet into the mouth of the lagoon in the hopes of returning the tidal flushing.

County officials have also funded several studies to explore what changes have taken place and how to ensure the long-term maintenance of the lagoon.

One study found that San Elijo Lagoon is among the most endangered in the county and that only a small number of saltwater fish of a few varieties have been able to survive the habitat changes taking place there.

“The lagoon is not living up to its potential,” said Chris Nordby, a biologist who has studied local lagoons for 12 years and who prepared the county-sanctioned report by the Pacific Estuarine Research Laboratory at San Diego State University.

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“It’s greatest potential is as a saltwater estuary. But, as long as the mouth is closed, it just can’t support the types of wildlife it otherwise could. It can still reach that potential--as soon as someone comes up with a proactive management plan for the future of the lagoon.”

In the meantime, the fish, clams and crabs are dying. Instead of pulling up hundreds of fish in his nets as he would at other lagoons, such tests at San Elijo garnered maybe 50 fish at a time, Nordby said.

“I was shocked to find such little life in the lagoon,” he said of the nine-month study. “It’s not right. But it’s not like we’ve got a definitely terminal patient here.”

Paul Webb, a planner for the state Coastal Commission in San Diego, said conditions at San Elijo are typical of other lagoons in the county.

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“You can’t look at any coastal lagoons these days and say they’re pristine,” he said. “Actions by man, the building of freeways and railroads and development near the lagoons have increased the rate of sedimentation.

“That’s led to a deterioration in the quality of the habitat. If the mouth isn’t opened and kept open, you’ll see lots more fish killed there.”

That’s exactly what nearby residents don’t want to see. Many say they’ve already witnessed fewer resident and migratory birds at the 530-acre wetland area.

So, for the past two years, residents have maintained a letter-writing campaign to county officials about the state of the estuary, which is maintained by the county and the California Department of Fish and Game.

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“The bugs are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Wayne Coleman, director of the La Mirada Homeowners Assn. “We’re concerned about what else is happening down there--and what the county is going to do about it.”

Coleman and other homeowners, meanwhile, wonder why it took so long for the county to start dredging the lagoon’s mouth and channel and whether that effort will be enough to maintain the long-term health of the estuary.

They also wonder whether one agency running San Elijo and perhaps the other area lagoons would be a better arrangement than the current fractured management policy, under which each lagoon has different ownership and maintenance agreements.

“Every time you look in the paper you see that one of the North County lagoons is in trouble--all, it seems, from the same types of things,” Solana Beach resident Jim Petruk said.

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“Everyone is fending for themselves, trying to get their lagoon taken care of. Why can’t the state or the county or someone take over the cohesive management of these places to make sure they’re protected?”

But the county, residents say, has told them its doing all it can under the circumstances.

“We’ve met with County Supervisor Susan Golding, and she has understood our frustrations,” neighbor Cathy Gill said. “But she emphasized that the lagoon was an interjurisdictional issue, and that’s why it sometimes takes so long--it’s just all the layers of government.”

Meanwhile, homeowner Petruk has watched the lagoon decay for years while, he says, government officials have stood by wringing their hands over a solution.

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“The lagoon has changed. Year by year, you could see it dying,” he said. “And not only the county but a lot of environmental groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club came down to take a look.

“But everybody just threw up their hands and said, ‘The lagoon is dying.’ No one could think of an agency that could do anything about it.”

Tom Clotfelter, who has lived near the lagoon for generations, has wondered which agency will step forward and take charge in planning the lagoon’s future.

“The dying part is right,” he said. “That lagoon has just been sitting and sitting and sitting without any attention. Because, when it comes to these agencies, there is no management plan west of I-5.

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“But before anyone can touch the place and make it whole again, they need a management plan--a map, if you will, for their future actions.”

Barbara Simmons, a district manager for the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation, acknowledged that funding woes and government red tape have slowed efforts to dredge the lagoon channel and deal with other problems there.

After the storm of 1987, she said, the county solicited estimates to dredge the lagoon channel but all came in too high. “Initially,” she said, “we had the dredging permit from the Coastal Commission but not enough money.

“Then, when we got the money, the Coastal Commission said before we could obtain a permit for routine dredging, we needed to make more studies of the area and development a management plan, accompanying data of what’s in there, how it should be now.”

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With funds that include a $90,000 grant from the Coastal Conservancy, the county plans to complete hydrology, topography and other studies of the lagoon within the next year, Simmons said.

Simmons acknowledged that there are many agencies to consider when planning changes at the Encinitas estuary.

“Not only are there the county and fish and game involved,” she said, “but there are regulatory bodies concerned with wetlands such as the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Coastal Commission and local interest groups such as the San Elijo Alliance.”

“The situation isn’t perfect. But if there were one body created to oversee the lagoons countywide, as some people suggest, you’d end up with just one more layer of government. I don’t think that’s what we need.”

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Simmons insists the lagoon is not dying.

“This is a lagoon on the way back,” she said. “We’re not talking about the Ganges River here. Things will never be like they were in the pristine early days. But the changes doesn’t necessarily make it sick. We’d prefer to keep it a saltwater estuary than a lake.”

Experts acknowledge that more than occasional dredging will be needed to restore San Elijo Lagoon. Until studies are completed, however, county park officials say, they can’t be sure which course to take.

“We still don’t have the funding to do the dredging on a yearly basis,” said Alex Martinez, assistant director of the San Diego parks department. “Hopefully, with some studies in hand about the health of the lagoon, that will go a long way to getting grants from the state.”

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Although dredging is the first step necessary to return the saltwater flow to the lagoon, Simmons said it may not solve the residents’ gnat problems.

“I’m guardedly optimistic,” she said. “This should help, but I don’t think it will solve their problem. Most of these people live too far from the mouth of the lagoon for it to raise the saltwater content near their homes and kill off the bug larvae anytime soon.”

Meanwhile, the homeowners around the San Elijo Lagoon continue to write letters to county officials, trying to keep attention focused on the estuary.

“We have such a potential lovely setting to enjoy here,” Coleman said. “It’s an ecological reserve we don’t want to see ruined.”

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