The sun-baked layers of cracked mud lining the deeply receded banks of Atascadero Lake bared the dismal underbelly of the city’s prized attraction Friday, as dead fish bobbed along the murky waterline.
This week, city officials announced that the lake will disappear entirely in the next 30 days. And, depending on rain, it may not be back for at least a couple of years.
“I used to swim in the lake and fish in it. I’ve never seen it dry,” said resident Jerry Clay, who moved to Atascadero in 1940 when he was just 6 years old. “This has gone to an extreme.”
The city-owned waterway, connected to Atascadero Creek and dependent on rain, has suffered ongoing hot-weather problems in the last few years of drought. The problems culminated last fall when thousands of fish died from oxygen deprivation in the warm, shallow waters.
Since then, thousands more have turned up dead as the lake has dwindled to practically nothing.
Atascadero colony founder E.G. Lewis created the lake in the early 1900s when he dammed up the creek to help fulfill his vision of Atascadero as the perfect place to live.
At capacity, the lake can hold up to 68 million gallons of water over 30 acres. When it’s full, its deepest point is 13 feet. Swimming there was a beloved pastime of some longtime residents. But because of a buildup of bird feces, residents have more recently enjoyed the lake by walking along its shores, fishing and exploring it in paddle boats.
City leaders, including Mayor Tom O’Malley, publicly stated that refilling the lake would cost at least $500,000 — money the cash-strapped city doesn’t have. In fact, just this week the City Council agreed to take a sales tax measure to voters in November in order to pay to fix its cracked and crumbling streets.
City officials asked the state for approval to relocate the remaining fish, which include mostly carp that officials suspect people dumped there from their koi ponds.
“We are not allowed to,” O’Malley said. “There are multiple agencies that take jurisdiction over our own waterway, and it’s very frustrating for our staff.”
Carp are an invasive, non-native species and could be diseased, public works Director Russ Thompson said. In fact, the city likely will not be allowed to add fish back to the water once the rain returns, he added.
While Thompson says watching the lake shrink away has been sad, the city staff is looking toward the future to improve the lake’s overall health. The city is working to secure a second state dredging permit to scrape dead plant material from the lakebed to make the waterway deeper and cleaner.
Last fall, the city spent $70,000 to dredge the south end of the lakebed that had been exposed.
While such efforts are underway, going years without a community lake is too much to bear for some residents.
“It’s depressing,” lakeside resident Jon Trumbull said Friday as he gazed at the ducks and birds floating atop the one-foot-deep section of lake that remains. He would like to see the community band together to find a way to get the water back.
“I was expecting someone else to fix it and have come to realize that we as residents need to find a way to fix it ourselves,” he said.
Trumbull, whose home overlooks on the lake on Santa Rosa Road, is a member of the Friends of Atascadero Lake but said his comments are his own because he is not a group spokesman.
He worried for the city’s tourism — an industry that describes the lake as a community gem and destination.
“Tourism suffers when a place looks like this,” he said.
The Pavilion on the Lake, a facility the city rents out for weddings and other events, has seen five fewer wedding reservations from January to June of this year compared with the same period last year.
“We have definitely seen a drop in bookings this year,” said Patti Deirmenjian, Pavilion coordinator.
That’s a loss of nearly $13,000 in city revenue so far, she said.
Only one couple said outright it was because of the lake, she added. Even so, Deirmenjian recently got the go-ahead to add a disclosure to the Pavilion’s website saying: “Due to a statewide drought, our lake has dried up.”
“Just so when people from out of town are looking at pictures of a venue on a lake, they know ahead of time. So it’s not a shock when they come here,” she said.
Organizers didn’t see a drop in ticket sales for the 19th annual Atascadero Lakeside Wine Festival, taking place Saturday.
“We look forward to the lake returning as it has in the past and also commend the city of Atascadero for working closely with (the state) to clean and maintain the lake as we wait for mother nature to take care of the rest,” said Linda Hendy, Atascadero Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.