By Sophie Regan
Thanks to recent heavy rainfall, long-dry Lake Lagunita is full again; while the Stanford community can look forward to enjoying the lake for at least the remainder of this school year, the University has reiterated that all water activities are prohibited.
The ban may come as a disappointment to the many students who have taken advantage of the picturesque lake to take part in everything from kayaking to lounging on rafts and even swimming. For the rare species of California tiger salamander that calls the lake home, however, the ban is a necessary protection. According to the University, aquatic activities could very likely kill developing salamander eggs and larvae.
Originally created in the 1870s as a reservoir for the Stanford farm, Lake Lag played a central role in campus life for several decades. Early Stanford students enjoyed windsurfing, sailing, boat racing and taking part in other aquatic sports on the lake. The lake also hosted concerts and even Elizabethan carnivals on its shores.
A Daily article from 1907 declares that the lake was “justly considered one of the most beautiful spots on the campus” and “played a prominent part in Stanford life and Stanford traditions.” These traditions included sunbathing on a lakeside beach maintained by the University and attending the Spring Hydra Follies — or Water Carnival — which started in the early 1900s and was revived in the 1970s.
School-wide events have not been hosted at the lake since 1997, when the Big Game bonfire — an annual pre-game tradition since 1898 — was banned because of environmental concerns.
The University stopped filling the lake for recreational use in 2001 and now fills it only to protect the vulnerable California tiger salamanders that populate the lakebed. Usually the water diverted from San Francisquito Creek by the University combines with natural rainfall to produce around three feet of water, but this year, water levels have risen as high as 10 feet.
Lake Lag is home to the last remaining population of California tiger salamander on the San Francisco Peninsula, and, in 1998, Stanford signed an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game and Santa Clara County promising to support the species.
“The last several years of the California drought have been hard on the tiger salamanders,” said Esther Cole Adelsheim, conservation program manager in the department of land use and environmental planning. “Last year, there was no successful reproduction in Lagunita because water levels were so low.”
Because of the drought, the University was unable to divert a sufficient amount of water last year, further harming the salamander population.
Thankfully for the salamanders, the recent rainfall means that the lake will have enough water for them to successfully undergo metamorphosis. However, because the lake leaks water so quickly, the University will likely need to add water until the metamorphosis process is complete. This means students can expect to see a full Lagunita until at least June or July — and potentially for the next several years, depending on rainfall and the amount of water that is absorbed into the ground.
Unfortunately for the salamanders, swimmers and other water enthusiasts are not the only threats endangering the population. According to Adelsheim, climate change, disease and human impact already “present considerable challenges” to the salamanders’ conservation. The Stanford salamanders’ annual migration across Junipero Serra Boulevard also puts them at risk to be killed by cars.
Furthermore, Adelsheim said, the salamanders are threatened by Bsal, a fungal pathogen specifically affecting salamanders. While the disease has not yet reached the Bay Area, pet salamanders — who can host the disease — are regularly transported through the ports of Stockton, San Francisco and Oakland, which are all close enough to Stanford to introduce the disease to the local population.
If lake-goers are not convinced to stay out of the water by the plight of the salamanders, they will probably be persuaded by the associated health risks, Adelsheim said.
“While the water in Lagunita is safe for salamanders, it is not particularly safe for people,” Adelsheim said.
Because the lake water is not treated, those who enter Lagunita risk getting “swimmer’s itch,” a skin rash caused by a microscopic parasite that infects some birds and mammals, according to Tom Zigterman, director of water resources and civil infrastructure. Zigterman warned that bacteria from dead amphibians and rodents, which are often found in Lagunita, present an additional health risk.
In addition to prohibiting water activity, the University also emphasizes that dogs should be kept on leashes near the lake.
While lake-goers cannot take a dip in the water, they can still enjoy sunbathing, picnics and walks along the path surrounding Lagunita. However, many students are disappointed that they can only experience the lake from its shores.
“I’d love it if the lake could be used for swimming, kayaking and other water sports,” said Daniel Henry ’20. “I know someone was thinking about getting a water trampoline, which would be incredibly fun. I love lakes! As soon as I heard it had water in it, I went swimming with a friend.”
Many swimmers, kayakers and boaters are venturing into the lake despite recently added signs warning of potential harm to the salamanders.
“I believe that one of the greatest things about the school is that it allows students to have the freedom to do anything on campus,” said one student who continued to kayak on the lake this week despite the signs. “The fact that we do not have the right to go in the water is basically against the fundamental principles of this University.”
Current students are not alone in bemoaning the loss of the lake. For years, alumni have lamented the fact that the next generation of Stanford students will not be able to experience Lake Lag as they did.
“When I think of the fun we had at Lake Lag — whether it be the Spring Hydra Follies or the bonfire during Homecoming weekend — it is truly regrettable that today’s students can only enjoy a blanket under the stars,” wrote Steve Covey ’68 in a Letter to the Editor about a 2010 Stanford Magazine feature on the lake. “They will have missed so much fun from our time.”
Contact Sophie Regan at sregan20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.