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Pontoon boat

An RMA crew worked from a pontoon boat Saturday morning, picking up dead fish on Laguna Joaquin.

The Community Services District, which has said nothing about the circumstances of this weekend’s fish kill in Laguna Joaquin, spoke Sunday afternoon.  Ed Crouse, the interim general manager, fielded questions.

The key question: What happened?

Crouse said copper sulfate was added to the east inlet at the RMA’s pump house to treat an algae problem that was impacting the RMA’s pumps. He said this has been done many summers in the past, sometimes multiple times in a summer, with no problems. 

The chemical depletes oxygen in water to control algae. It can also kill bacteria, plants, snails, fungi and fish. There were also concerns about blue-green algae in Laguna Joaquin, which can be toxic.

Laguna Joaquin, a shallow, man-made detention pond, has been without its usual source of fresh water, the Cosumnes River, since the Cosumnes Irrigation Association ditch was closed June 27. It was closed so it could be piped as part of the Murieta Gardens development going on across Jackson Road. Beyond its role as eye candy for people entering Murieta North, Laguna Joaquin catches runoff from much of the North, and it holds water taken from the river for ranchers downstream under riparian water rights.

Since the ditch's closing, the CSD has made an effort to add fresh water to the lake by running hydrants into storm drains that feed into the lake.

Here’s a Q and A with Crouse, pieced together from interviews Sunday. He apologizes to Murietans impacted by the fish kill, explains the science involved and offers some history. He has been part of the CSD for more than 20 years.

So what happened to cause the fish kill?

Let me say, I’m surprised but not shocked. We’ve had a similar experience several times in the past, and its typically there’s several conditions that seem to exacerbate the problem. One is heat; second is low water levels; the third is an algae growth. In years past, we have always treated that little cove area to reduce the algae that goes into the RMA irrigation system. And in years past, it didn’t seem to be a problem. But I think this year ... it just seemed to all come to a head, so to speak.

And this application of copper sulfate was done to the spec, done correctly?

You catch me off guard there, but I’d have to say that, yes, Paul (Siebensohn, director of field operations) and his staff have been following the spec, if you will, on how to administer it. We’ve done it in the past in a similar method, if you will, and it seems to work. But it depends on your perspective, though. Working seems to kill the algae, but fish die because of the lack of oxygen....

We’re going to, hopefully, get together with RMA and CSD and sit down and have a little skull session and figure out what happened and how we can learn from our experience and move forward, so hopefully we never have it happen again. But there are no guarantees.

Are there any health risks in connection with the algae or water?

From a resident perspective, I know there’s a smell and aesthetic (issue), and that’s not ideal, but that’s typically what happens in August – it’s green and it’s a kind of funky smell.... Blue-green algae, my understanding is, there is some toxicity. I’m not sure how that affects humans, so the best bet is to stay out of it until we know otherwise, and not eat any fish (from there). If you catch any fish, wash your hands – normal precautions.

Has there ever been an incident as pronounced as this, with this many hundreds of dead fish?

My recollection is no, not while I’ve been here as GM, since the mid-’90s. I understand it’s happened before, but at that time, in my understanding, it was more of a global application of herbicide to reduce the algae – through the entire lake.

Have you done any testing of the lake water to see the state of things now?

My understanding is Paul took a sample Friday afternoon, took it to one of the labs, and I think he was more testing for blue-green algae presence than anything else. But I don’t know the extent of what the lab will test for. We’ll surely make those public.

If Friday’s test doesn’t address oxygen in the lake, will you do another test for that?

I believe it’s pretty easy for our staff to sample the water on a routine basis and determine the dissolved oxygen level. If need be, we can always grab samples and send them off to a lab. 

Did the lack of fresh water in the lake contribute to the fish kill?

I’m not an expert, but, you know, there’s always a cause and effect. More than likely....

There’s been criticism of how the CSD responded to this. Saturday, the work crew that was out there was mostly RMA people. And there was a public safety/communications issue. If you had a hundred dead fish outside your door, you probably would be pretty impatient to get answers. And the CSD wasn’t available to take questions.

So, there’s a couple of topics that you touched on. The first was staff, and was staff available. Yes, we were out there working (Saturday) with RMA. I understand that we may not have had the full complement of staff out there, but we had staff assisting RMA, picking up the dead fish. And we also had a staff person out there flushing the hydrants to help raise the water level.

For me, as a general manager, I was out, and I didn’t realize the severity of the problem.

You had staff out there, but they were on the shore. If the RMA hadn’t brought out two boats, there still would be hundreds of dead fish on the water.

I don’t doubt that. I understand it fully. On my end, I’m trying to close the loop over here, trying to figure out how we can have a point of contact. ...  I didn’t realize, and didn’t read my emails, and didn’t get a phone call. We’re going to turn around and take an inward look and figure out how we can address immediate issues faster.

Does the CSD have anything to say to the people who’ve been impacted by this?

I apologize. If we made a mistake, we made a mistake, and I apologize. There are certain things we can control and ones we can’t control. We try our best, and we’re always working to do what’s best for the community and RMA. Sometimes things go awry. We learn from our mistakes, and we’re going to move forward.

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