New life for Lake Merced 

Once upon a time, The City’s largest body of fresh water was a haven for boaters, anglers and city dwellers seeking myriad forms of recreation — until droughts and development drained the water, drove off revelers and killed the fish. Can a new wave of activists, officials and stakeholders turn the lake into a destination again?

When considering water recreation and viewing options, most San Franciscans think of The City’s beaches and the Bay. Less attention is paid to its freshwater lake.

Located in the southwestern corner of San Francisco, Lake Merced was once a boating, fishing and picnicking hot spot, but those pastimes virtually disappeared when droughts more than a decade ago dried the freshwater system — which is actually four interconnected lakes — into a muddy mess.

These days, Lake Merced is percolating with new life, but derelict remnants of its former self still suppress its potential to return to the social hub and urban sanctuary it once was.

When the lake’s level fell, reaching a 60-year low around 1993, fish grew elusive and foul-tasting, the lake’s ecology crumbled and a muddy odor became rank.

That led a concessionaire to abandon the charming wooden boathouse from which he ran a bar, rented boats and sold bait, tackle and fishing licenses.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a native San Franciscan whose district includes Lake Merced, said he remembers its decline.

“I did see, as a kid, the water levels getting lower — I saw that all through the late ’80s and ’90s,” the District 7 supervisor said. “Nothing is more frustrating to me as District 7 supervisor than to drive past Lake Merced and see the dilapidated boathouse.”

But Elsbernd said he holds out hope that recommendations being prepared after nine years of meetings by an advisory group of environmentalists and recreational groups will help turn Lake Merced once again into a popular “recreational, educational and cultural resource.”

Unveiled this spring, the Lake Merced Watershed Plan considers a number of scenarios for the 614-acre lake and park area that aim to return it to its former glory, with restored wetlands, park benches, a campground, restrooms and a nature center to complement boating, fishing and trail activities.

Working in conjunction with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — which owns the lake as an emergency backup water source — the plans will be discussed at meetings with neighborhood associations and recreation groups this month, SFPUC project manager David Behar said.

Additional uses of the lake could include continued skeet and trap shooting, a new or restored boathouse, competitive rowing, dragon-boat races, kayaking, a nature-education center, a bait-and-tackle shop, kiosks, and picnic and play areas, according to a draft plan released in April.

Controversial components of the proposal include a call to evict the lakeside Pacific Rod and Gun Club, an 80-year tenant of the area.

There is also concern that changes at the lake could include new development opportunities — a possibility that has residents of a nearby 721-apartment complex on edge, said Lakewood Tenants Association president Mona Cereghino.

“The lake has always been very juicy for contractors,” she said.

A new recreational plan for the lake is scheduled to be ready early next year, Behar said. Once the plan is finalized, however, fundraising efforts and environmental reviews will be needed to help realize the vision, he said.

Dee Dee Workman, who helped form the Lake Merced Task Force, said a new plan could see the lake transformed into a destination as popular among day-tripping locals as the waterfront, Presidio and Golden Gate Park — in stark contrast to today.

“There are an awful lot of people in San Francisco who have lived here for a number of years and couldn’t find Lake Merced on a map,” Workman said.

City lost its prime fishing hole

Falling water levels in Lake Merced robbed The City of what had been known as a “jewel” among U.S. urban fisheries.

As the lake’s water levels fell late in the 20th century, the cold water turned warm and inhospitable for many of the aquatic inhabitants, according to Lake Merced Task Force member Dee Dee Workman.

“The lake almost died,” Workman said. “The water was so bad that no one could fish. All they were catching were these yucky bottom feeders.”

Until it shuttered in 2002, the lake’s bait-and-tackle proprietor would annually stock the lake with trout to help drum up business, said Mondy Loriz, an official at nonprofit fishing advocacy group CalTrout.

“From the ’50s through the ’70s and part of the ’80s, the fishing was really outstanding at Lake Merced,” Loriz said. “One of the big fishing magazines claimed it was the jewel of all urban fisheries.”

The California Department of Fish and Game still stocks the lake with baby trout.

Loriz said as residents and city officials go forward with plans for the lake’s renaissance, he hopes fishing programs for youths are resumed.

In addition to trout, there are fish similar to largemouth bass in the lake, which could be supported as a new fishery with a few ecological measures, Loriz said.

“They would be able to reproduce in the lake, and they don’t compete with trout,” Loriz said.

New, sustainable water sources on tap

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, water levels at Lake Merced fell 10 feet from the already low levels, caused by a variety of factors, including droughts and nearby pavement-happy developments that prevented rainwater from recharging underground aquifers, according to members of the Lake Merced Task Force.

At the same time, pumping was increased from the same aquifers to keep parks and golf courses lush.

After droughts sent water levels to a 60-year low around 1993, refilling efforts using water from The City’s Hetch Hetchy dam have since helped lift them by nine feet.

Pumping from underground aquifers — along with a new system of wetlands along John Muir Drive to clean rainwater runoff and channel it into the lake — is being considered by The City to help push water levels up while protecting Hetch Hetchy reserves.

A day at the lake

The City is looking to add to the activities already available at Lake Merced.

Among proposed changes

  • Restore existing boathouse or build a new one
  • Build a nature center
  • Create a children’s play area
  • Creation of wetland habitat
  • Restore boathouse full-scale restaurant and bar
  • Remove or reduce skeet shooting/firing range
  • Add new restrooms

Recreational activities at Lake Merced

  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Trail activities
  • Bicycling
  • Skeet shooting
  • Picnicking
  • Camping
  • Wildlife viewing

Source: Lake Merced Watershed Plan

Lake Merced by the numbers

614: Acres of land and water

70: Species of birds observed nesting

4: Interconnecting lakes

2.1: Miles of trails

45,000: Approximate number of fingerling rainbow trout stocked in 2007

9.25 pounds: Weight of a record-breaking trout caught in 1952

Sources: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, California Department of Fish and Game, San Francisco Public Library, CalTrout

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