The fish that remain in what’s left of Tempe Town Lake face a certain death, so they’ll be scooped out and tossed into the snapping jaws of alligators.
The city showed off its lake cleanup plan Friday by trotting out Tuesday, a 6-foot-long gator that is one of many creatures to benefit from the lake going bust.
Several animal rescue groups will use the fish to feed alligators, turtles, birds of prey and other recovered animals that feast on flesh. The city wants the fish removed before they die, or soon enough after they expire that they can safely be used as food. Dead fish will be removed, too.
Russ Johnson fed Tuesday the alligator a fish from the lake on Friday morning before a crowd of curious kids and their parents. Johnson is president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, which will feed fish to its 21 alligators and crocodiles.
Kids began petting Tuesday’s tail while it chomped down on the fish, and as nervous parents asked whether the gator might snap back, Johnson explained that Tuesday was raised in a home with children and pets and is so docile that she is taken to schools for demonstrations.
“She was in front of 109,000 grammar school kids last year,” he said. “If that won’t drive her crackers, nothing will.”
Tuesday was the only gator that will appear at the lake. The fish will be shipped to various animal rehab centers. If the fish come out faster than animals can eat them, the organizations have freezers to make the meat last longer.
The operation will continue until all the fish are removed.
Fish removal began Wednesday, the day after a rubber dam on the lake’s west end suddenly burst and emptied most of the lake’s billion gallons. Some shallow puddles remain, and water stands about 3 feet deep at the west end.
The heat and lack of oxygen will kill the fish, said Rick Amalfi, vice president of Aquatic Consulting and Testing. It’s not worth transporting the fish to other urban lakes because most are carp, a fish lake operators typically want removed. Also, the fish are so stressed that most would die in the move, Amalfi said.
The 220-acre lake once held tens of thousands of fish, said Amalfi, whose company was contracted to test the lake and prevent insect infestations there since the year before the lake opened in 1999. As many as 95 percent were washed away, he said.
The recovery has gone slow so far. The water is too shallow for boats or large nets. Smaller nets can work, but there’s a drawback: Even if workers see fish in a few inches of water, they have to walk through mucky silt that’s 6 inches to 2 feet deep.
“If it’s shallow enough, you can grab them. The problem is,” Amalfi said, lifting his jeans a little to show thick crusted mud up to his ankle, “you can’t move.”
A few hundred fish have been recovered so far, and about 75 percent are usable as food.
Aquatic Consulting and Testing will also work to control mosquitoes in the ponds that remain.
The fish removal will only slightly reduce odor because the exposed silt produces a strong stench of its own.
Removing the fish is also important to prevent hungry birds from flocking in what is a flight path for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Tempe and Sky Harbor have ensured fish that washed downstream will be removed to prevent birds from gathering closer to the airport.
“If no one did anything, it could become a problem but we’re not going to let it become a problem because we’re on top of it all year,” said Sky Harbor spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher.
Before the dam burst, Tempe had considered dredging the lake to remove the growing amount of silt, city spokeswoman Kris Baxter-Ging said. Now, the city may remove it while the lake is empty and grade the riverbed to prevent the trickle of water from pooling. Dredging the river would have stirred the silt and hurt water quality, while grading a mostly dry surface will be easier.
“It would save money and be more environmentally friendly,” she said.
The city plans to refill the lake by Nov. 1. Three of four new dam sections should be in place on the lake’s west end by then, ahead of a one-year replacement schedule that was to begin on Wednesday. Crews started work this week despite the rupture.
Meanwhile, attendance at the lake is surging because of interest in the busted dam. The nearby Tempe Center for the Arts has about 200 more people a day, Baxter-Ging said.
Also, some spectators have wandered illegally into the lake and riverbed. Tempe is warning people to stay out because sharp objects could be hidden in the soft silt and because people could quickly sink into several feet of muck. Park rangers can issue trespassing citations to anybody in the riverbed.
People who lost things on the lake have been calling the city to ask if the cleanup crews have recovered keys, cell phones or other objects lost over the years, Baxter-Ging said. It’s too early to have scooped up anything yet, but the city will have a lost-and-found collection as the work goes on.
“It’s going to be a while before recover things,” she said.