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Lake Merced a 'shipwreck'

Historical Essay

by Chris Carlsson

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Aerial view of Lake Merced, 1999.

Photo: from a video by Chris Carlsson

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Lake Merced

Photo: Dimitri Loukakos

Lake Merced in 1999 is in dire shape. The lake's concessionaire recently quit, after fifteen years of steady degradation: water levels to maintain a healthy aquatic environment, rampant tule growth that block shore access, vandalism, and maintenance of bathrooms, piers and docks.

Tom Stienstra, SF Examiner writer, reported on March 3, 1999:

"The first thing you notice [on a visit] is the low water level. The Master Plan calls for a 27-foot water level, but it's more like 17 feet, and that's the highest it has been in 10 years. The lake has been as low as half empty in the 1990s, and for years, [Chris] Senti [manager of boat lodge] has argued that the SF Water Dept. could easily fill the lake with water from Crystal Springs.

"According to Mount Lassen Trout Hatchery, the sustained low water has created a decline in oxygen levels and a corresponding increase in nutrient levels. In turn, that has caused water quality so poor that fish can barely survive. Those that do live often taste terribly, like fertilizer.

"The adjacent Merced Impoundment, which once provided a great trout and bass fishing program for kids, has been lowered to the point that it can no longer sustain fish. South Lake, one of the three lakes that make up Lake Merced, was once the most popular trout fishery in Northern California, but now it is pretty much abandoned: tules have filled in 10 to 20 feet along much of the shore, eliminating shoreline access in many areas, and the Kids Fishing Pier is now surrounded by tules and is unusable.

"The boat hoists at the South Lake, where residents once could launch dinghies, sailboats and row boats, are not only inoperable, but even if repaired, no longer reach open water. They haven't worked for 10 years, without intervention by The City."

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1940s golf tournament at Harding Park, one of the golf courses using Lake Merced water.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

The obvious culprit for the falling water levels at Lake Merced are the three golf courses that surround it. The lake's history as a site of explosive wildflowers and as an estuary to the ocean are long gone and forgotten. Students and teachers from local schools are heroically trying to reverse the demise of the lake, but at this writing lack the public political support they'll need to get it done.

May 10, 1999


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