Lake Merritt: An Unnatural History

Natural history, n. the study of organisms and natural objects, esp. with reference to their history and native environment.

Lake Merritt, n. an artificial lake located in downtown Oakland, California .

No this cannot possibly be a NATURAL history of a concrete basin in the middle of the city of Oakland. It better be an unnatural history of a very special place. All the styles and ways of Oakland happen in and around Lake Merritt — both natural and human — including herons and suckle backs along with more than 50 human languages. It is truly an urban lake, and certainly has it’s problems, like all places urban, and today, maybe like all lakes. But it serves Oakland well and is deserving of some attention.

I have been getting to know the lake better by volunteering to pull the trash out of it. Before I started I expected that I would be with others and we would all grumble about how fucked up people are in Oakland for littering. But that is not what I found. Instead there is a glee and wonderment — what will come up in the net this time?

There is almost a poetry between the action of the net pulling paper and plastic bags from the water. They float and dance in the current of the water and after some practice the bags dance right into the nets, as do candy, cookie, and chip wrappers — from hippie granola types to all the corporate faire. You can often tell what holiday has passed by the trash you find. We find beer, wine, and champagne bottles, which by the way must get poured out before disposing because they often become homes to the many fish that live in the lake.

Condoms — both used and unused — and balls of all shape and sizes (bouncy, tennis, racquet, basket, golf, those red playground ones) are perhaps the most common items found. Then there is the mystery item of latex gloves — kind of a lot of them. With all the condoms maybe I should conclude that Oaklanders are practicing extra safe sex, but I won’t hold my breathe on that one.

In one day we pulled out three hubcaps, an unusual concentration since only one car a year is usually towed out. There is also usually one bike a year and a cell phone once every few weeks. Pens, salsa, white out, cigarettes, lighters, dime bags (empty of course), gobs of bark chips, an electronic cash register and fully intact trash cans. Sometimes we find dead critters — big fish, ducks, I even found a poor little dead baby heron iridescent and long beaked.

The amount of trash is ever dependent on the rain because the trash mostly comes from the several creeks that drain into the lake through Piedmont, Downtown, East Oakland and the bay itself. During the rainy months about 9000 pounds of trash are removed each month, while in the dry months only about 1000 pounds.

Lake Merritt is a salt water lake and in some areas would even be called brackish water (places where the fresh water creeks drain into the salt water). But who can tell that from the outside? You have to really get into it to know that. Try asking a turtle. Sometimes people trying to save them will set them “free” to their death in this salt water soup. They are lucky to survive a few weeks if they are near the fresh inlets.

So turtles aren’t residents of the lake but, trout, bat rays, sharks and halibut cruise in from the bay. And there are hundreds of waterfoul with their silly people-given bird names — goldeneye, teal, coot, grebe, wigeon, pintail, bufflehead. In all there are at least 1,000 different critters that make this 140 acres in the middle of Oakland their home.

There are 60 storm drain outfalls into the lake and only one of them has a filter on it. Folks that care about the lake want to get them all filtered, costing around $7 million. Filters would take away the bulk of the work for us volunteers, but keep the lake more consistently clean for the critters.

Some other dreams for the lake as reported by the fabled mermaid (and the lake Merrittt institute) are to decrease runoff from a nearby golf course and cemetery because they increase the nitrogen level and mess with the water’s balance permitting excessive algae growth. Folks also want to find ways to increase the oxygen content of the lake to reduce algae and plankton blooms. Some government agency considers it an impaired body of water. Impaired it may be, but with Oakland’s flair!

That is the story under the lake in its murk and funk, but the story that moves around the lake is amazing and inspiring and reminds me of why I live in an urban California place.

There is space to cruise whether you are an Oakland teen or a Canada goose. The geese are squatters and many people would love to take them out, but they are given sanctuary at the lake.

Just the diversity of people running around the lake can warm my heart — diversity of race and age and size, ability, conversation, music. The lake is a place to sit and watch people go by, for tai chi, free weights, crying or a power walk at lunch. You can take a snooze on the side or if you are a scaup you can take a snooze in the middle of the lake — in the middle of Oakland — an unnatural natural slice of Oakland.