The Draining of San Carlos - Loss of Lake Habitat is Regrettable

Losing a lake

Photos by Kevin Lee,
The Arizona Daily Star

Lew Early contemplates what are now vast mud flats from a point that was a prime fishing area not long ago

Some consider prayers and ceremonies for rain to replenish the lake

The lake's previous level is etched behind as Kevin Lyons, Adam Lehmann and Nicolas Ornelas try their luck

Lyons, left, Roy Salazar, Ornelas and Lehmann lament the decline

San Carlos shrinks, comparatively, to a puddle

Lack of rain, winter snow endangers fish, irrigation

By Doug Kreutz
The Arizona Daily Star

SAN CARLOS LAKE - Call it hydrological irony.

In a month when flash floods are dealing death and destruction to some parts of Arizona, this fishing paradise and vital source of irrigation water has the opposite problem.

It's drying up.

``The water is way, way down, and if it gets much lower the fish could die,'' said Marvin Mull Jr., vice chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

The lake is on the tribe's reservation southeast of Globe.

``The San Carlos Lake Store had to lay off eight employees, and we had to close the marina (because of receding waters),'' Mull said.

``This is serious for our people who use the lake and work there. But it isn't just affecting the tribe. It affects people who use the water for irrigation and people who come to the lake to fish.''

Doug Martin of Globe is one of many anglers who fear the worst.

``If this lake keeps going down, eventually everything will die,'' said Martin, who fishes at San Carlos about four days a week. ``There could be a major fish kill - catfish, bass, crappies, carp, everything. It would be just like pulling the plug on your bathtub.''

The lake, formed by the construction of Coolidge Dam on the Gila River in 1928, has declined from 211,700 acre-feet in March to about 52,000 acre-feet as of late last week, officials said. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre to a depth of one foot.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has put a plan in motion to buy about 8,000 acre-feet of Central Arizona Project water as a partial solution to the problem.

That water, purchased with $300,000 in federal drought-relief funds, would be used by farmers downstream from the lake, thereby reducing their withdrawals of lake water for irrigation.

But wildlife experts fear the savings might not be enough to keep the lake from shrinking to the point where its abundant fish population would die from lack of sufficient oxygen in the water.

Ironically, the water shortage - a result of a meager snowpack and scant rainfall in the Gila River watershed above the lake - comes at a time when flash floods have plagued other parts of the state.

Among the floods this month were a torrent that swept 11 hikers to their deaths in Antelope Canyon near Page, a wall of water that ravaged the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon and a flash flood that killed six illegal entrants near Douglas.

At San Carlos, meanwhile, the lake that sometimes swells to more than 18 miles in length and three miles in width has shrunk to perhaps five miles in length and a few hundred feet in width in places.

``The water level has dropped about 30 (vertical) feet since March,'' said Carl Christensen, an engineer with the San Carlos Irrigation Project. The project operates Coolidge Dam and manages irrigation water for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees the dam and lake.

``Right now, it's dropping about 2 inches a day,'' Christensen said. ``But water levels at the lake depend very much on the weather. The maximum storage capacity is about 880,000 acre-feet, but it's only filled to capacity four times since 1928'' following periods of heavy snowfall and rain.

No ``typical'' level

``There really isn't any `typical' level,'' he said. ``Last year at this time, it had 182,000 acre-feet of water in it. But it dried up virtually every year from 1944 to 1964. In 1976 it dried up with virtually no water left at all,'' killing the fish in the lake.

After the fish kill in 1976 and another dry year in 1977, runoff water replenished the lake naturally, and wildlife officers restocked it with fish.

Christensen noted the lake, albeit prized by anglers and boaters, was created primarily as an irrigation reservoir to serve farms of the Gila River Indian Reservation and private farms near Florence, Coolidge and Casa Grande. Those water users have the legal right to draw from the lake until it's empty, he said.

Releasing half this year

``Releases (for irrigation) vary depending on how much water is available,'' Christensen said. ``Last year, we were releasing about 2,400 acre-feet a day. This year, we're releasing about 1,200 acre-feet a day.''

While farmers continue drawing water sparingly to keep their crops from drying up, the steady decline of the lake is causing economic hardships for some Apaches and potential environmental nightmares for tribal fish and wildlife officers.

Barry Welch, assistant area director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the tribe makes an estimated $500,000 annually from lake-related recreation. The income includes revenue from fishing licenses, boat rentals and store sales, as well as the wages of about 80 people whose work is associated with the lake.

Lake store business dropped

Terry Jones, who oversees special projects for the tribe's San Carlos Lake Development Corp., said business at the lake store has dropped about 20 percent with the decline of the lake.

``And we just completed the marina last year,'' Jones said. ``That was a half-million-dollar investment, and now it's shut down.''

Paul Nosie Jr., director of the San Carlos Recreation and Wildlife Department, said he and government biologists are monitoring the lake closely for any sign that the declining water levels are affecting the fish.

``There's no sign of fish dying as of yet,'' Nosie said late last week. ``At this point, it's unknown at what water level the fish would begin to die. We don't have data on that.

``What causes them to die is lack of oxygen in the water,'' he said. ``Algae grow and use up the oxygen (as the volume of water declines). Then once the fish start dying, the bacteria in (decaying) fish contribute to the problem.''

Biologists in the past have speculated that fish kills are likely if the lake drops to between 30,000 and 60,000 acre-feet. But Nosie declined to estimate at what point the fish might die.

The plight of the lake's fish, he said, isn't the only potential environmental problem.

``We have two pairs of nesting eagles near the lake, and they feed on fish,'' Nosie said. ``Once the fish start dying, there's the potential risk of botulism that could occur in the fish - and the eagles would risk getting that bacteria.''

Eagles, falcons OK so far

The eagles, as well as a pair of endangered peregrine falcons nesting near the lake, appear to be faring well so far, Nosie said.

Nosie said a worst-case scenario - in which the lake dried up and all the fish died - would require a complete restocking of fish once the lake had refilled naturally.

``That would cost from $200,000 to $300,000 a year over a five-year period,'' he said. ``It would take at least five years to get it to the point it's at now.''

For now, anglers say fishing at the lake is actually better than usual - partly because many fish are concentrated in a relatively small area.

``It's really pretty good right now,'' said Ken Simpson, who lives in a trailer park near the lake and operates the KS Enterprises boat repair service. ``People are catching 5- and 6-pound bass.''

Fisherman Lew Early, of Mesa, agreed that big ones are biting - for now.

``But it's getting bad,'' Early lamented as he looked out over mud flats that were covered with water a few weeks ago. ``I've been fishing here for 45 years, and I've seen it dried up before. It's awful - the stink from the dead fish. I don't want that to happen, but I think it's going to dry up again. Losing this lake makes me sad.''

Too much mud

Other fishermen shared Early's disappointment.

``It's pathetic what's happened to this lake,'' said Roy Salazar of Tucson. ``We went to four (fishing) spots yesterday where there was no water at all. It's too bad, because this is a good lake.''

An Apache fisherman from the community of San Carlos, who would identify himself only as Southside Johnny, said he's seeing ``too much mud, not enough water.''

``I usually catch me a bass and go home and cook it,'' he said. ``Now it's all muddy. If you're lucky, you catch a muddy bass.''

For many, the only answer is appeal to a higher power.

``There was a tribal ceremony for a special blessing for the lake this week,'' said Matt Hopkins, a technician with the tribe's wildlife department. ``It was a blessing for the rain to come and the lake to get filled up.''

Simpson, the boat repairman, puts his faith in a similar place.

``God's gonna make it rain,'' he said. ``He's the only one who'll fill that lake up this year.''

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