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New York Times Covers Lake Tulloch

New York Times

April 20, 2002

Era of Uncontrolled Growth Is Ending at a California Lake


COPPEROPOLIS, Calif., April 18 — An early morning mist ambles over the still surface of Lake Tulloch, as if prodded by an unseen hand. A flock of mallards takes to the air, gliding in loose formation, while a lone boatman putters into view.

Come Memorial Day, as happens every year, such scenes of calm will vanish as hordes of summer visitors, many with second homes here, descend on Lake Tulloch, a reservoir created when part of the Stanislaus River was dammed in 1957, primarily to provide irrigation for San Joaquin Valley farms.

The lake, 120 miles east of San Francisco, is one of the few in California with private houses on its shores, and therein lies a problem with which residents and local officials are only beginning to grapple.

In the last few years, with little planning and without a single environmental impact review, hundreds of houses and piers have been built on Lake Tulloch, and developers are eyeing more territory.

"You've got all these teeny, teeny lots stacked on top of one another," said Daryl Boddiker, a retired food industry executive from Chicago who, with his wife, Mary Ann, lives in a house high on a bluff overlooking the lake. "Everyone has a boat or dock."

The land around Lake Tulloch, for decades owned by a handful of cattle ranchers, has become the staging ground for a battle over public access, water quality and land-use planning. Safety is an issue because of a rising number of accidents involving boats and personal watercraft. Then there is the pressing concern about whether to allow more septic tanks beside a body of water that, several years ago, was known colloquially as Lake Toilet because of the frequent sewage overflows.

"The simple beauty and simplicity of Lake Tulloch has been greatly changed by Bay Area money, but that is what we call progress," said Eva Keyser, an office manager who first came here to water-ski in 1960. "Usually the one with the money wins."

But something of a crackdown has begun. Two weeks ago, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors denied a developer's bid to split a 20-acre lakefront property into four lots. Recently, another developer who wanted to build an 80-slip marina was allowed only 10 boat slips. On March 21, the Tri-Dam Project, part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, imposed a 60-day moratorium on pier construction here.

"This is not antigrowth, it's not about pulling up the drawbridge," said John E. Cox Jr., a former president of a homeowners' association who bought a house here seven years ago. "This area has been a stepchild for years, and it has to stop."

Copperopolis, an old one-strip mining town, lies northwest of the lake, out of sight beyond the rolling hills. In Angels Camp, another town nearby, Mark Twain wrote a short story called "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," published in 1867 and still invoked each May at the Jumping Frogs Jubilee.

These days, residents like Ed Rich, a former Calaveras County planning commissioner, fear that piles of mine tailings from the industry's heyday could be leeching into the lake. A report by the county's Environmental Health Department in March 1996 described a "green sediment" flowing from a copper mine pile, and said it was composed of manganese, zinc, copper and arsenic. The green suds are still around, Mr. Rich said.

Officials here and in Tuolumne County, which borders Lake Tulloch to the east, are embarking on a study to determine the best way to protect the lake and manage its future.

Dale Laughlin, 70, who grew up on a cattle and hog ranch near here, is slightly bewildered by the area's recent growth but is resigned to it.

"You reminisce back to your childhood days, and you don't like to see things change as much as they do," he said, nursing a beer at the Old Corner Saloon. "But it's one of those inevitable things; you kind of have to live with it."

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