A Natural for 'Fake Lakes' : Algae-Removal Expert Creates Habitat-Safe Water Without Toxins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Living in Southern California, surrounded by commercial and residential development, Shelly Solomon has carved a niche as a passionate environmentalist in what some might call an odd way.

She works for developers--many of whom can't wait to hire her. Solomon, 37, cleans up their lakes for a living.

Most of her projects involve "fake lakes," as she calls them, created by developers as showy centerpieces to condominium projects or industrial parks.

Usually, Solomon is called to rescue these lakes at the eleventh hour. Having used chlorine, copper and other toxic elements to rid their artificial lakes of algae, most of her clients have managed only to compound the damage.

Solomon and her partner, David Cowling, run the Irvine-based Ecoquatics, which uses a wide variety of plant life to soak up and suck up algae and chemicals. The results are natural ecosystems for birds and fish and "crystal-clear water--naturally," she said.

Solomon also runs another company out of the same office, Land & Sea Landscape Architects, which is similarly unconventional. For those clients, she makes open spaces or even residential back yards animal-friendly habitats.

In that line, she worked as part of a scientific team helping to create wilderness areas in conjunction with William R. Mason Regional Park in Irvine, the Tustin Ranch and even the expansion of Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach.

But her greatest love, Solomon said, is cleaning up lakes.

"It isn't a one-time operation," she said. "Much of the work is maintaining the plant life we put in, which is pretty extensive. We do that once a week, with any lake we clean up.

"Pouring chemicals in a lake is easy--it's a quick fix, a short-term solution that poses a long-term problem. Taking care of a lake chemically free is a lot more time-consuming, but the lake will live forever."

Solomon said her work has made her an even more ardent environmentalist. Developers, she said, are doing immeasurable damage by paving over pristine ecosystems with one more strip mall or yet another stucco-walled, tile-roofed subdivision.

The tragedy is that "our native wetlands are being destroyed, because we keep on building right on top of them."

Larger lakes are even more critical, but by restoring the smaller so-called "fake lakes" that permeate residential and commercial developments, particularly in Southern California, Solomon says she can "give back a bit of life" to mallards and other migratory birds that have been in jeopardy for years.

Sam Berry, a conservationist with the local chapter of the Audubon Society, said the work that Solomon and others like her across the country are doing is the cusp of a trend.

"I would hope the value of her work is self-evident," he said. "We've had heaps of habitat loss because of development. But a lot of developers are coming around to the realization that it's the long-term goals we have to care about. For that matter, people who buy property nowadays are more interested in the long-term anyway."

Berry said Solomon's greatest contribution is in sustaining the lakes.

"More and more American ducks are staying in this general area and breeding, and they depend on these mini-habitats, which are of no use to them if they're polluted with chemicals," Berry said.

Solomon said she has been shocked by some of what she has seen the last few years. Some lakes have become so choked with chemicals that the algae has become largely resistant to toxins in general.

She says the typical response at lakes is to pour two and three times the amount of chemicals normally used "and just try to smother the algae that way."

Developers increasingly are interested in the kind of work she does, but, she says, not always for altruistic reasons. Primarily, she says, they're struggling to comply with the ever-more stringent state and federal guidelines for clean water.

And developers are finding that keeping land and lakes chemically free has a side effect that they especially can't resist.

"Cost," she said. "Why pay the cost of adding chemicals to a lake when you can keep the lake chemically free forever? It's a win-win situation."

Solomon currently is working with a San Dimas contractor on a project involving her other forte: restoring natural habitats.

Just south of the San Gabriel Mountains, Solomon is helping to take "barren land strips that have been disturbed by man through construction processes or other means and bring them back to the way they were before man intervened," said Kevin Quanstrom, vice president of L. Barrios & Associates.

Solomon is planting non-ornamental plants such as coastal sage, black sage, white sage and toyon.

Already, Quanstrom said, wildlife "seem to be suddenly reappearing."

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