By Som Lisaius,
Pena Blanca Lake is a popular southern Arizona destination, located about 50 miles south of Tucson. But if you try to visit the recreation area today, this "Closed" sign and locked gate are as far as you're going to get.
That's because Pena Blanca Lake is off limits for the next eight months, at least. The reason why? Sediment in the bottom of the manmade lake is contaminated with mercury.
Says US Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Schewel, "So the fish are picking this up, they're passing it on through the food chain and up to us who ultimately eat the fish that are caught here."
And this is how they're doing it. One gallon of water at time. The idea is to drain the lake, its contents and clean-up all that contaminated sediment. But it's a big job. Which is why three 14-thousand pound pumps will be running non stop over the next 30 days.
"It's a huge project," says James Moots of Red J Environmental, the Phoenix-based company hired to do the work. "We actually have somewhere between 330 and 340 million gallons of water to drain out of the lake."
So this is what 12 thousand gallons of water per minute looks like; it creates its own river. And if you ever wondered what's sitting at the bottom of the lake, they're about to find out because Pena Blanca will be pumped dry in the next month or so.
The lake is contaminated due to mining operations back in the 1800s. In 1999, contractors cleaned up three mining sites south of here, but tailings from those sites made it down the watershed and eventually pooled in the bottom of the lake.
As a result, everything in it took in excessive levels of mercury.
"We have trout, croppy, sunfish, bass, catfish," Schewel says.
Forest Service officials say it's going to take up to eight years for the lake to refill itself. And rainfall levels will make all the difference. Other activities like camping and hiking will surely resume long before that. But it's still going to be quite sometime before Pena Blanca is anything close to what people are used to.