ContentsPutah and Cache: Clear Lake or Lypoyomi

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State Park to Lakeport

Pete Richerson and Scott Richerson

Returning to Soda Bay Road, turn right towards Lakeport. Just after leaving the park you will see a row of giant valley oaks to the right of the road. Soon you will enter the flat agricultural land of Big Valley. This area was the cradle of white settlement and is still the leading agricultural area around the lake. Remain on Soda Bay Road and you will shortly cross Kelsey creek. In the late spring, it is worth stopping to see if the hitch are running upstream to spawn. Hitch are one of the few remaining giant native minnows that historically dominated the fish fauna of lowland California. Notice how deeply Kelsey Creek is incised into the Big Valley alluvium. The downcutting here is ironically due to the opening of the tule marsh and delta at the mouth of the creek to develop the boat harbor at the State Park about 25 years ago. At flood times the lower reach of the stream began to flow faster, eroding itself deep into its bed. Even seemingly innocent environmental modifications can have serious consequences.

Erosion may explain the mystery of the misnomer "Clear Lake." While never as clear as an oligotrophic lake like Tahoe, the few reliable reports from the early years all suggest a clearer lake than scientists came to know after 1938. John Jago, a long time resident of Clear Lake, told the Lake County Historian that he remembered waterweed growth in the lake. Jago thought that increasing sedimentation gradually caused the lake to become cloudier. Scientific research has generally endorsed Jago's hypothesis. We know that sediment is rich in phosphorus, and is likely to encourage nitrogen-fixing bluegreen algae.

Disturbance of stream channels and land surfaces began on a large scale with the development of heavy powered earthmoving equipment in the 1920s. Around 1925 the modern types of heavy earthmoving equipment, led by Caterpillar Tractor's innovative bulldozers and motor graders, began to see widespread use. Road-building, mining, wetland filling, diking, aggregate extraction and similar types of projects were revolutionized as the cost of moving a cubic yard of loose material fell by a factor of ten or more. The lake still supported abundant rooted bottom vegetation in 1925 when a Department of Fish and Game biologist made a reconnaissance visit, but by 1938 federal gnat investigators found a turbid lake largely free from this vegetation. Heedless use of heavy equipment is one of the likeliest culprits in the deterioration of the lake's water quality.

Still, Clear Lake was always eutrophic and will always remain so. Livingston Stone, a government fish culturist who attempted to establish Great Lakes whitefish in the lake in 1872-3, described the turbidity and "swamp-water" taste of the lake, complaining that "it is a singular fact, illustrating the inaptness with which names are often given to natural objects, that the water of Clear Lake is never clear." Nevertheless, he noted that rooted vegetation was abundant. Abundant bluegreens have shaded out such vegetation in most years since the 30s. The fact that Clear Lake is naturally eutrophic does not imply that the heavy scum growth of the 20th Century was a natural or necessary condition at Clear Lake.

Take Park Drive off Soda Bay Road down to a county park with lake access. From the end of the jetty , you will see a large tule marsh along the shore a few hundred feet to the left. This is a good place to strike out in a boat or canoe to explore tule habitat. The best-preserved marsh is along the toe of Big Valley, where the gently sloping and soft ground leaves a wide marshy shore that is difficult to farm or develop. The tules are a favorite environment to many species of fish, as well as home to crawdads and clams. A Department of Fish and Game study shows that fish abundance along tule beds is about double that of a shoreline where tules have been removed. Western pond turtles sun themselves on the tops of boulders among the tules, and otters and mink make their homes among the reeds. Blue herons, mallards and grebes cruise through the air or over the water, and cormorant colonies roost in the lakeside trees.

Back on Soda Bay Road the turnoff to the quaint agricultural town, Finley, is on the left after another mile or so. It sports an excellent Mexican restaurant, the only currently active retail business. Although American fur trappers traveled to Lake County as early as 1833, it was crop agriculture that soon after the Gold Rush first drew settlers in any numbers to Clear Lake. Beginning in the 1840s, families began moving into Big Valley, clearing land, grazing cattle and experimenting with crops that might yield well in the hot, dry climate. Salvador Vallejo's vast land claim inhibited settlement until it was declared invalid in 1866. By the 1870's, farms changed from subsistence to commercial operations. Grapes, walnuts and pears were among the cash crops that farmers experimented with, but pears proved to have the most lasting value. By 1900, most farms were commercial, employing Indian and Chinese immigrant workers (later to be replaced by Mexican workers). Sawmills, mines and canneries began to open, and settlement increased, however slowly.

Lake County's remote location, exacerbated by difficult transportation, has always held back the prosperity of the area. From 1850 to 1925 there were many failed efforts to extend a rail line into Lake County. The steep topography and weak rock of the surrounding area make construction and maintenance of roads expensive, and travel over them slow. Highway 20 from the east is subject to rockslides. The Hopland Road, State Highway 175 from Lakeport to Highway 101, may be the most crooked 15 miles in the entire statewide system, and the St. Helena Grade on Highway 29, the main route into the County from the Bay Area, is not much better. Even quality two-lane public roads were late in coming, and today there are no freeways leading to the lake. As a result of its geographical barriers, Lake County retains the rural and small-town identity common in the mountain West.

Half a mile down the road from the Finley turnoff is the Big Valley Indian Rancheria, one of five Indian settlements in Lake County. The Big Valley Rancheria includes one of the largest remaining tule wetlands on the lake, and one of the planned improvements in the works is the protection and restoration of this area. Plans also include new housing, a cultural park, a community center, a marina and a new hotel and casino. The site was originally the Catholic St. Turibius Mission, established in 1870. As more and more whites began to settle around the lake, they pushed the Indians into giving up their rights to the land. Federal agents negotiated treaties setting aside reservations for the California tribes in 1851 and 1852, but vigorous lobbying by Anglo Californians prevented their ratification by the US Senate. The State Legislature passed statutes depriving Indians of basic civil rights, including the right to testify against Europeans in court. Lacking even the most elementary protections of the law, Indians were driven from their lands whenever it was convenient for settlers. They became refugees in their own place, surviving as best they could in a thoroughly hostile world. About 100 local Pomo took shelter at St. Turibius, but only at the expense of giving up their traditional ways, particularly their sacred ceremonies. Some Indians were able to purchase their own lands, but the Rancheria system of micro-reservations was not established by the Federal Indian Agency until around 1910.


A couple of miles past the Rancheria, we enter Lakeport via its modest industrial district. Lakeport is a historic and dignified town, with a lush city park on the water. Behind the park lies a quaint downtown, with cafes, a used bookstore, and the Lake County Museum—and, of course, plenty of waterski shops. Residential streets to the west of Main Street have many interesting older residences. Lakeport is the County Seat. The present County Courthouse is just behind the museum that occupies the historic Courthouse. UC Davis is represented by a County Cooperative Extension Office and by the Clear Lake Environmental Research Center. The Center, housed in the historic Carnegie Library building in Library Park, offers information and programs about the lake. The local, state, and federal agencies, along with the Forest Service at Upper Lake and the BLM in Ukiah, have the main environmental management and protection responsibilities for the lake and its watershed. The Clear Lake Integrated Resource Management Committee effectively coordinates the efforts of these disparate agencies. Chaired by a member of the Board of Supervisors, the committee includes members representing the relevant government agencies as well as citizen groups. Citizen involvement is high and has resulted in a "zero tolerance" policy regarding pollution of the lake.

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