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Residents complain drawdown of Lake Chautauqua smells bad, wastes fish

August 24, 2011 at 03:43 PM

The Pekin Times

The shore of the northern pool of Lake Chautauqua looks like an environmental disaster with thousands of dead fish laying in rotting piles. It’s overrun with maggots and the buzzing of the innumerable flies feasting on the carnage is eerily loud.

Small, muddy pools writhe on the surface from the backs of struggling, crowded fish dying slowly in oxygen depleted ponds. 

Also, it stinks. It smells like . . . well, like dead fish, basically. Thousands of them.

This is an undisputed fact, though some Goofy Ridge residents would dispute the estimated death toll and insist there are a million dead fish. What is disputed, though, is whether this scene is a man-made catastrophe or a necessary side-effect to maintain the balance of the lake’s ecosystem.

The wildlife refuge at Lake Chautauqua drained the north pool beginning Aug. 1, leaving the area swampy and leaving thousands of fish high and dry, with nowhere to go but to dry up with the water. The south pool has been left alone.

Lee Albright, the refuge manager, said the pool was drained to mimic the natural characteristics of the lake had the Illinois River not been artificially heightened to accommodate boat traffic.

The lake is a migratory bird refuge and the lake needs to be muddy to promote the growth of certain plants that will seed in time to serve as food for the migrating birds in fall after the pool has been refilled in October.

The process is called a “draw down.”

According to Albright, the north pool has not had a draw down performed since 1999, and the procedure was needed because the area had seen a decline in the plants necessary to sustain the migrating bird population.

The dead fish are just an unavoidable result of managing an effective migratory bird habitat, according to Albright; an effect he said he did all he could to mitigate.

“It’s impossible for us to get all the fish out. We opened up the gates to create flowing water out of the gates for 10 straight days trying to get all the fish out that we could,” Albright said. “Given this kind of a set up there is no way we could do a draw down without losing some fish.”

Goofy Ridge residents who love fishing, though, are irate about the waste of so much fish and the smell that overtakes the town when the wind blows just right.

Ridge resident James Lapikas said the whole lake is just government waste. He questioned why nearly $15 million was spent on the lake if it was “just going to be a bird bath.” Though, as Albright pointed out, that figure was spent by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct the very pump system used to pump out the water from the lake.

Lapikas and others in town take exception to Albright’s statement that most of the fish are just invasive Asian carp and say plenty of good game fish are lying dead on the lake’s shore. Indeed, an inspection of the shore reveals several species of fish.

Lapikas and a Ridge resident named Dean at the Hialeah Club with a friend Tuesday all distrust Albright and what he has done to the pool and rumors have sprouted from that mistrust.

They believe there is a secret push to promote duck hunting at the expense of fishermen. Lapikas even went so far as to say he had heard some rich man had funded a $10 bounty for each duck hunters catch during the migrating season.

At least, the men seem to agree, Albright should have allowed commercial fishing operations to come in and catch all the fish. Condemning them all to death just seems hypocritical, according to Lapikas, since the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife should care for the protection of fish just as much as migratory birds.

“You don’t dare go down there and catch over your limit of fish or else you’ll get a ticket, but they’re just going to kill ’em all?” Lapikas asked.

However, Albright said the Lake Chautauqua refuge was set up as a sanctuary for migratory birds, and while the refuge does allow fishing, “that’s different than managing for it.”

According to Lapikas, the negative effects of the draw down go beyond just a loss of good fishing. It may even hurt the very birds Albright hopes to help.

“It stinks like all get-out here and not only that, it’s a breeding ground for botulism that’s going to kill a lot of birds out here soon,” Lapikas said.

According to a manual available on the website for the National Wildlife Health Center, the mass decaying in the north pool provides the type of environment that promotes the development of the bacteria that causes avian botulism, which can cause mass die-offs of bird populations.

Albright said this was the first time since 2007 a draw down of any sort in the refuge because the procedure depends on the Illinois River “behaving,” but this is far from the first time a draw down has been performed.

Ella McGlothlin said she has lived in the Ridge near the lake for about 30 years and she said this is the worst it has ever been.

“It stinks, it’s ruining our property,” McGlothlin said. “The birds and the gulls are flying around all over there and the bugs — it stinks. You can’t even go out and sit on your porch or anything. Everybody down there’s complaining it’s bad.”

Albright said the pool will not be reflooded until some time in October, so the residents of Goofy Ridge will have to suffer the stink a while longer. And, according to Albright, a draw down is scheduled for the south pool in 2012.

Ridgers sick of the stink better hope the river does not cooperate next year.

Copyright 2011 Pekin Daily Times. Some rights reserved

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