Draining Lake Elaine: Students are thirsty for more

Draining Lake Elaine: Students are thirsty for more

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Ducey

Dear Governor Ducey,

There has been a lot of talk about drains lately—mainly figurative drains: Draining the swamp, draining the battery, draining the bank accounts. In Flagstaff, there has been a literal draining of a lake. Lake Elaine, a small lake in my neighborhood, possibly named after Julia Louis Dreyfuss’s character on Seinfeld, was drained last spring to look for a hole. How is there a hole in a lake, you may ask, dear Governor. Well, Flagstaff’s geology is very strange. There is an abundance of basalt and limestone and other porous rocks that suck up whatever water might be lying about and transporting it underground where it pops up in fancy places like Oak Creek. Some say it’s not fair that we suffer all the snow and Sedona reaps the benefit of our cold ears and wet socks. But we keep some of the water: Flagstaff smartly installed a dam where Walnut Canyon used to flow freely into Lake Mary before the river sneaks underground. Thus, we are not entirely thirsty, but we have to drive downhill if we want to hear the sound of a babbling brook.

Thanks to suburban housing plans in southeast Flag, a gully has formed where, if we weren’t so volcanic-rock ridden, a lake may rise. But Lake Elaine needed a little more help, so the surrounding HOA lined the gully with a synthetic liner. Water cascaded into the bowl, thanks to rainfall and snowmelt. The liner kept the water from sneaking off. Eventually, a bald eagle nested nearby. Great blue herons bathed in the shallows along with snowy egrets. Geese and mallards stopped by for baths and snacks. At night, deer, elk, coyotes, raccoons and probably even mountain lions snuck by for a drink. No one used the lake, even to kayak upon, because Inland Shores people didn’t grant access. Still, it was good for the birds and the beasts and probably dragonflies and bees to boot.

A manmade ecosystem is still an ecosystem. The bald eagle wouldn’t have become attached to the lake if the lake wasn’t offering some kind of snack food in the form of fish. Still, over time, the liner grew old. The concrete surrounding the bowl cracked and flaked. It cost $160,000 a year to keep the lake filled with reclaimed water. After lawsuits and struggles and sadness, the water was drained. Now it sits there, a little water ringing the bottom from this winter’s snow and melt. But no birds are there today. The bald eagle left months ago. I haven’t seen a snowy egret or a blue heron in almost a year.

The lake makes me think about how much responsibility we have to things we humans have made. I think of the scientists who are considering how to best feed polar bears, since we humans have warmed the planet so considerably that the ice floes from which the polar bears usually hunt their sea lion prey has melted. Scientists used to say, don’t intervene in nature. But that was a stupid thing to say. Humans are nature and we intervene nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I think of other manmade structures, like funding for education. It took effort to build such a thing: Governors and congresspeople and legislators, and people named Horace Mann. The first tax-payer-supported school began in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1639. That’s almost 400 years of taxes going to pay for schools. That’s a lot of apples. 400 years of connecting school to school, convincing schools to desegregate, convincing schools to teach equally to all even though their budgets were in no way equal.

Still, dear Governor, you’ve done a pretty great job draining the lake we call a public school budget. Every year, the teachers head to the shoreline. They have to walk further every year to get to the water. They measure the ever-diminishing lake. They dole out the water to every student. They try so hard to fill the cup. Sure, there’s a charter lake across the way. That lake looks full, but the administrator’s cup is very large. It’s funny because he actually owns the lakebed and the government pays him to hold the water. The students get the same amount to drink, either way. Meanwhile, back at our publicly held lake, the teachers are standing knee deep, passing drinks to the students. The students drink and drink. With each sip, sight of the bottom becomes clearer and clearer.

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