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The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

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5/11/2013 10:01:00 PM
Lakes recreation flourishes despite water-quality obstacle
Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
A pair of sailboats cruise around Willow Lake in Prescott May 21, 2011.
Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
A pair of sailboats cruise around Willow Lake in Prescott May 21, 2011.
Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
Algae fills the water around the Willow Lake boat dock in Prescott July 9, 2010.
Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
Algae fills the water around the Willow Lake boat dock in Prescott July 9, 2010.
Cindy Barks
The Daily Courier

This is the third and final article in a series on Prescott's payback of the bond debt for the 1998 purchase of Willow and Watson lakes.

PRESCOTT - On any given summer weekend, the recreational potential of Watson and Willow lakes is on full display.

From the hordes of kayakers crowding the boat docks, to the hikers making their way on the loop trails circling both lakes, to the golfers lobbing discs, the northeast-Prescott lakes are full of activity throughout much of the summer.

Now 15 years into the city's lakes purchase, Prescott Parks and Recreation Director Joe Baynes sees Willow and Watson as major assets.

"The recreation potential and the ability to keep water levels up - that has really enhanced the area," Baynes said.

About six years after the 1998 approval of the $15 million purchase of the lakes, the city officially broke ground on the lake parks. The April 2004 ceremony, which was attended by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, culminated years of planning and design for the parks' new boat docks, restrooms, parking lots, and fish-cleaning stations.

As a result of the improvements, water sports and other activities have flourished. Dave Wheeler, whose Prescott Outdoors company supplies the kayaks, canoes, and bikes at the concession area at the Watson Lake boat dock from about mid-April through late-October, says customer interest has been high.

"In the course of a good, busy weekend day, we average 45 to 60 kayaks and canoes (rentals)," Wheeler said, adding that the interest depends on the weather and lake levels. "People just love it; when they come back, they're all smiles."

Along with the originally planned amenities, the city and its cadre of volunteers have added unanticipated features as well: Miles of trails now showcase the granite rock formations ringing the lakes, and a partnership with local disc golfers resulted in the construction of a nine-hole course overlooking the shores of Watson.

In 2004, the lakes also were designated as "Important Bird Areas," and draw in a stream of bird watchers. The massive rock formations also regularly attract climbers to the lakeshores.

"Most of the goals that were set out were accomplished," Baynes said of the original master plan.

Especially at Watson, where the water levels remain relatively high throughout the year, the visitor numbers have steadily increased. "Watson is the most visited lake we have," Baynes said.

Recreation hindrances

Even so, the city has encountered plenty of challenges when it comes to the recreational opportunities at the lakes.

Foremost among them: The quality of the water.

Since 2004, both Watson Lake and Granite Creek, which feeds it, have been listed on federal and state lists as "impaired" bodies of water.

Jason Sutter, TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) and assessment unit supervisor with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), said the listing stemmed from regular water-quality testing, which began in 2002.

Watson Lake currently is listed as impaired for levels of nitrogen, dissolved oxygen, and for pH levels, Sutter said, while Granite Creek also is listed for levels of E. coli bacteria.

Sutter attributes the condition of the lake and creek to high levels of "nutrients" or pollutants.

Over the past decade, a number of state and local efforts have attempted to deal with the pollution. To assist in the efforts, ADEQ has awarded about $2.2 million in grants for improvement projects, said ADEQ Grant and Outreach Supervisor Krista Osterberg.

ADEQ estimates that its watershed projects have reduced sedimentation by 370 tons a year and have removed 817 pounds of nitrogen and 230 pounds of phosphorous annually.

Pollution's effects

Still, the remaining pollution levels are evident in the crop of algae that clogs Watson and Willow lakes almost every summer.

As the water warms, the green carpet of algae regularly surfaces in the lakes by July or August. Experts say the algae are fed by the nutrients in the water.

A number of options are available for dealing with the algae, Sutter said. "Quite a few things could be done," he said, "but it's not an easy answer."

While chemical treatments, harvesting of the weeds, or deepening the lakes all could cut down on the algae, Sutter said the methods would not deal with the "root cause," which involves the pollutants coming into the lakes from the watershed.

In an effort to define and quantify the problem, ADEQ is working on a TMDL report (referring to the amount of pollutants the lake could assume on a daily basis and still meet water-quality standards).

The report should be ready for release by about early June, Sutter said - after which ADEQ will conduct a public meeting, and will kick off a 30-day comment period.

Swimming status

Meanwhile, the pollution levels have contributed to the city's decision to prohibit swimming in the lakes. Although swimming beaches were among the features that the city proposed during the 1998 bond issue, that component never came to fruition.

Former Parks and Recreation Director Jim McCasland said the swimming beaches were simply not feasible. "The money you would have spent on it was not prudent," he said.

Baynes said the water quality and the presence of submerged rocks also entered into the decision.

Sutter says the pH levels in Watson Lake could cause problems for swimmers. "There are potential issues for full body contact, such as swimmer's itch," he said.

But it is a local call on whether to ban swimming, based on that information, Sutter said; the ban does not come from the state level.

While the TMDL will help to determine the steps that could help to make the lake suitable for various activities, Sutter said, it will be up to the community to determine the desired uses for the lake.

Varying water levels

Also affecting the recreation potential are the somewhat inconsistent water levels - especially at Willow Lake.

Wheeler said his company discontinued its boat rentals at Willow because of the insufficient water levels and dwindling customer interest.

Since the beginning of city ownership, one of the contributing factors to lake levels was the regular withdrawal of water from the lakes for recharge of the groundwater aquifer.

Depending on the amount of runoff water feeding the lakes in a particular year, the city transports varying amounts of lake water to its recharge field near the airport.

In 1998, the city estimated that it would withdraw an average of 1,500 acre-feet per year from the lakes. The recharged water was seen as a way to make up for the as much as 1,500 acre-feet of water that the city agreed to provide to CVID shareholders who wanted to continue to irrigate their land.

Officials said the drawdown also was necessary to remove some of the water from the Watson Woods riparian area at the south end of Watson Lake, where the large cottonwood trees would not survive if they were under water year-around.

The city's 2012 Annual Water Withdrawal and Use Report shows 445 acre-feet of surface water storage and recovery for the past year.

So far in 2013, the city has withdrawn about 402 acre-feet from Watson Lake from April 4 to May 9, according to city Utilities Manager Joel Berman. No withdrawals have occurred from Willow Lake.

Related Stories:
• Liquid assets: Residents' investment in local lakes pays off
• Free and clear: Prescott pays off bond issue for Willow, Watson lakes

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Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2013
Article comment by: Jen g

There may not have been planned water removals but the use of the lakes the bomb water on last years wildfires has almost dried them up,if they do it again there wont be any lake left at all! I can see them using it for local fires but for fires out of the county why not use water from a bigger lake like lake pleasant? Also I have heard rumors about the bacteria that causes necrotizing faciitas being in the water ( flesh eating disease) is this true? It would be great to have a swimming place like hassayampa lake was before it was sold by the city some of us are unable to four wheel drive into swimming hole areas not to mention forest service now blocking off all the old roads.

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2013
Article comment by: Doc Holliday

It would be great if the City of Prescott could designate either Watson Lake or Goldwater Lake to allow jet ski's or boats and eliminate the horsepower restriction as well as the no wake restriction, right now all the local lakes restrict horsepower and have no wake speed restrictions. I would propose allowing this one or two days per week as to not interrupt kayaks, sailboats, and others who want peace and quiet on the lake. People that own jet ski's and boats have to take and spend their dollars elsewhere to have recreational boating opportunities. We personally travel to lakes around the State almost every weekend to ride our jet ski's and spend our dollars elsewhere, this means fuel, entry/parking fee's, restaurants, etc.

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2013
Article comment by: dutch holland

when the lakes get dry because of lack of rain, that is when they need to come out and start cleaning the lake beds.

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