The Frances Short Pond was bustling with activity 8 a.m. on Monday.
But rather than residents walking their dogs or anglers casting lines, volunteers and city parks crews were gathering up hundreds of dead fish.
The effort came after a die-off of fish occurred over the weekend, just one more consequence of the intense monsoon rains Flagstaff has experienced in recent days.
Scott Rogers, regional aquatic wildlife manager for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, said fish die-offs are not uncommon, especially this time of year as the monsoon rains flush into bodies of water.
Indeed, Rogers said the Francis Short Pond, often referred to as simply the duck pond, has experienced a number of events in the past.
Rogers said the die-off was likely the cause of a growth plankton, a microscopic algae within the pond, that then died in significant numbers.
Rogers said plankton can grow rapidly as rain water drains from surrounding areas and runs into the pond. That runoff may bring with it significant nutrients from fertilizers or animal manures nearby and allow the plankton to grow quickly.
But those same storms can spell the plankton’s doom. As runoff brings more sediment and clouds block out sunlight, the plankton might quickly die out in significant numbers.
As a plant, plankton produces oxygen when it is alive, but once it has died, not only does it stop producing oxygen but the decomposition of the plankton takes yet more oxygen out of the water, Roger said.
It’s that lack of oxygen in the water that kills fish, Rogers said.
Bubblers in the pond do help oxygenate the water but that only helps so much, Rogers said.
There were also some reports that those bubblers may have not been working correctly after they were covered with sediment flowing into the duck pond. But according to city staff who arrived on the scene Monday morning, those devises appeared to be functioning.
Rogers said they had received some reports of fish seemingly having difficulty breathing -- and lots of dead fish -- on Friday, but by the time they checked the situation out on Monday, Rogers said, the city and volunteers had already cleaned up the area.
“I will say ‘thank you’ to everyone who came out to help,” Rogers told the Arizona Daily Sun. He added that he has helped clean up fish die-offs before and it is not a pleasant job.
Community member Dan Duke was one of the volunteers who decided to spend his Monday morning gathering up buckets of dead fish and disposing of them in the dumpster.
“I saw the call of need in our community through social media. It’s my hometown and I like to walk the pond and was like, ‘That's something that I can do,’” Duke said. “I kind of geared up with what I had at home and brought my waders and a rake and some laundry baskets and inner tube and trying to make my small impact in the world.”
That call to action was made by Arizona Daily Sun Chief Photographer and community member Jake Bacon, who also informed the city about the issue.
“It was awesome. There was a whole city crew here with probably six to eight gentleman, and they had boats. They were pretty much pushing everything to the shoreline, and then us citizens were gathering them from the shore,” Duke said. “Some monster fish as well as some baby fish and all sorts. There was some gold fish. I’m not a fish person but there was some really unique fish in there.”
By close to 8:30 a.m. most of the fish had been gathered, and city staff and volunteers had filled dumpster nearly a quarter of the way full.
Flagstaff Parks and Recreation Director Rebecca Sayers said her department doesn’t typically look after the pond itself, instead maintaining many of the trails around it. Instead, the pond is managed by the city stormwater section.
But with flooding in east Flagstaff, the storm water section is pretty slammed so Sayers said she and her staff were happy to lend a hand.
Rogers said once the duck pond clears up somewhat, they will again stock the pond with fish.
And there could be a silver lining, he said.
For some time there have been a large number of Bullhead catfish in the pond, a species they don’t want in it. Bullhead catfish are smaller than the species of catfish they stock the pond with but multiply quickly within it, Rogers said. This die-off might have eliminated that species from the pond.
The recent emergence of a virus that typically sickens children in colder months has baffled U.S. pediatricians and put many infants in the hospital with troublesome coughs and breathing trouble.
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common cause of cold-like symptoms but can be serious for infants and the elderly. Cases dropped dramatically last year, with people staying home and social distancing, but began cropping up as pandemic restrictions eased.
"I've never seen anything like this before,'' Dr. Kate Dutkiewicz, medical director at Beacon Children's Hospital in South Bend, Indiana, said after treating two RSV-infected infants recently. Both needed oxygen treatment to help with breathing. ''I've never seen cases in July, or close to July.''
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory on June 10 about an increase in RSV cases across parts of the South. Cases have appeared in many other states, too.
LaRanda St. John grew worried when her 6-week-old son, Beau, developed a bad cough a few weeks ago. The Mattoon, Illinois, mom has a medical background and suspected RSV when she opened his sleeper and saw his chest heaving with labored breathing.
"The doctors office couldn't get me in because they were flooded with people calling'' about kids with similar symptoms, St. John said.
A positive test in the ER confirmed RSV. The infant developed a rapid heart rate and had to be hospitalized overnight. His 16-month-old sister, Lulabelle, also contracted the virus but was not as sick and didn't need hospitalization.
St. John said she wondered if it might be COVID-19 because it's the wrong season for RSV.
"I can't say I was relieved, because I know RSV is just as bad,'' she said.
Children infected with either virus usually develop only mild illness but for some, these infections can be serious.
Among U.S. kids under age 5, RSV typically leads to 2 million doctor-office visits each year, 58,000 hospitalizations and up to 500 deaths — higher than the estimated toll on kids from COVID-19.
Among adults aged 65 and up, RSV can lead to pneumonia and causes almost 180,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths yearly. Cases in kids and adults usually occur in fall through early spring.
Off-season cases in Australia were a tip-off that the same might happen in the United States, said Dr. Larry Kociolek, an infectious disease specialist with Chicago's Lurie Children's Hospital.
Typically, infants are exposed to RSV during the first year of life, often when older siblings become infected in school and bring the virus home, Kociolek said. But, he added, ''there were a lot of kids and babies who were not exposed to RSV in winter of 2020 and winter of 2021. That just leaves a much larger proportion of susceptible infants.''
In infants, symptoms may include fussiness, poor feeding, fever and lethargy. Children may have runny noses, decreased appetite, coughs and wheezing.
But in very young infants and those born prematurely, the virus can cause small airways in the lungs to become swollen and filled with mucous. Babies who develop this condition, called bronchiolitis, may require hospitalization and oxygen or ventilator treatment.
There is no approved treatment for RSV, although a once-monthly injection of an antibody-based medicine is sometimes prescribed before and throughout RSV season to help prevent severe RSV lung problems in premature infants and other babies at risk for serious disease.
Reinfections are common but typically cause milder symptoms than the initial illness.
Kociolek said the recent unusual surge in cases could be partly due to more testing because of COVID-19 fears. In usual times, parents may dismiss RSV symptoms as nothing serious but now may fear they signal the pandemic virus.
RSV spreads through contact with airborne droplets from an infected person, but it's much more likely than COVID-19 to linger on skin and other surfaces including toys, which can also be a source of transmission.
RSV is among reasons why daycare centers and preschools often have strict policies about keeping kids with coughs home from school.
"A lot of parents think, 'Oh well, it's just a cold, they're fine to go to school,'' said Diana Blackwell, director of children's programs at Auburn University-Harris Early Learning Center in Birmingham, Alabama.
Despite strict cleaning measures, several children at her center have become sick with RSV in recent weeks, including her own 4-month-old son. He had violent coughing spells and was prescribed medicine often used to treat breathing problems in asthma, but did not need to be hospitalized.
She called the summertime outbreak at her center "just weird.''
"It didn't even cross my mind that it would end up being something like RSV,'' Blackwell said.
Dr. Mary Caserta, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' infectious diseases committee and a professor at the University of Rochester, said parents should be aware of the unusually timed virus activity and seek medical care if babies appear very ill or have trouble breathing.
RSV is one reason why pediatricians often caution parents of young babies to avoid crowds in winter cough and cold season.
"COVID has made people so hungry to be with other people that it would be hard now'' to make the same recommendation, Caserta said.
Whether the unusual summertime virus activity foreshadows less-than-usual RSV this coming winter is uncertain, she said.
"I've given up in any way trying to forecast the future,'' Caserta said.
For sustainability-minded residents, green home improvements can be an enticing investment -- whether that's installing solar roof panels or bettering attic insulation to battle the elements.
But when it comes to rental units, sustainable factors such as a home’s energy efficiency can be unclear to tenants, and there is often less incentive to invest in property improvements, according to a company gathering data on Flagstaff’s rental sector.
The company, RentLab, is looking to combat the issue by making rental features more transparent in the city. The hope is that by making property improvements publicly accessible on the RentLab website, it will lead to a rental sector in Flagstaff that is both more efficient and cost-effective.
The RentLab website says the service is like “Yelp for rental properties, but without the nasty reviews.”
On Thursday, after being delayed by the pandemic, RentLab partnered with the Flagstaff Sustainability Program to kick off a volunteer effort to gather more information from tenants and landlords on the rental units in the city.
The partnership comes as the City of Flagstaff has looked to take an increasingly bold approach to climate action, most recently approving a goal of attaining carbon neutrality in the city by 2030.
Achieving that goal will necessitate a multi-faceted approach from the city, according to its Carbon Neutrality Plan. One approach is to make improvements to the energy consumption in Flagstaff’s housing sector.
But incentivizing those improvements can get tricky when it comes to rental units, Flagstaff sustainability director Ramone Alatorre said.
“We have more renters than we have homeowners in Flagstaff,” Alatorre said. “Typically landlords are not the ones paying the bills, so there is not always that incentive to make an investment into something like sealing air leaks.”
Property investments, like those allowing homes to be heated more efficiently, could save renters hundreds of dollars a year on utilities while also reducing CO2 emissions. But right now, there is not a platform informing tenants of those factors before signing a lease, RentLab CEO Jacqui Bauer said.
“Flagstaff is a community that has pretty sparse information about their rental sector,” Bauer said. “We don’t really have a lot of information on the sustainability basics of those properties.”
To assist with gathering information, RentLab is looking for volunteers to crowdsource data on rental units, both as tenants themselves, or by going door-to-door. Tenants and landlords can also submit information on the company’s website.
The company combines publicly available information with the information that is reported by the community. Bauer says most of their data is based on public information, but crowdsourced data is used to fill in the gaps.
“We recognize the different qualities of data,” Bauer said. “If it comes from a solid source like a utility bill, we treat that differently than someone reporting the cost of their average electric bill, for example.”
Bauer said the goal is to have both tenants and landlords buy into the process, allowing for a more complete set of information. That information is then made publicly available to prospective tenants in Flagstaff through an interactive map on the RentLab website.
Eventually, Bauer said the map will assign a “smart score” based on factors such as a property’s accessibility and utility costs.
“We’re trying to get better information out there and help people actually see what the real costs of rental properties are,” Bauer said.
But local landlords are not as keen on the idea. Jacqueline Kellogg, West USA Realty Flagstaff, was particularly concerned with the program’s reliance on information provided by tenants.
“It has the potential to single out properties,” Kellogg said. “If you ask the tenants for that information, they are going to give you a laundry list of everything the landlord has ever done wrong.”
When asked about potential negative impacts, Bauer said a focus of RentLab is to celebrate investments that landlords are making to properties.
“We talked to a landlord a few weeks ago that upgraded all of the lighting on his property,” Bauer said. “We are trying to give him good press because we want more landlords to make those types of upgrades to their property.”
Beyond creating transparency between renters and property owners, Bauer said RentLab offers data analysis the city can utilize to target new programs addressing affordability and sustainability in the rental sector.
The City of Flagstaff pays RentLab an annual subscription fee of about $1300 to provide data analysis.
Those interested in learning more about the program can visit the RentLab Flagstaff page at: www.rentlab.org/flagstaff-az