Wednesday, June 18, 2008

From Swimming Pools to Vernal Pools

The Wall Street Journal last month reported a great story on new ecosystems that are emerging from California's foreclosure crisis. As families lose their suburban homes, immaculately maintained backyards are growing into wild steppes, and formerly fluorescent blue swimming pools are accumulating nutrients and turning a murky tea-green. Can you spot the foreclosures in the aerial photo below?

But as swimming pools evolve into vernal pools, health officials are sounding the alarm about resurgent mosquito populations bringing diseases like the West Nile Virus into these neighborhoods. So governments are breeding and distributing small fish that eat mosquito larvae into abandoned pools:
"The Gambusia affinis is commonly known as the "mosquito fish" because of its healthy appetite for the larvae of the irritating and disease-spreading insects. Lately, the fish is being pressed into service in California, Arizona, Florida and other areas struggling with a soaring number of foreclosures...

"The mosquito fish is well suited for a prolonged housing slump. Hardy creatures with big appetites, they can survive in oxygen-depleted swimming pools for many months, eating up to 500 larvae a day and giving birth to 60 fry a month. That can save environmental crews from having to repeatedly spray pesticides in the pools while the houses grind through the foreclosure process."

Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with this solution:
"First you have fish, then you have birds that eat them" and then bird droppings, says Arnie Shal, a retired accountant, who lives next to several foreclosed houses with pools in Clearwater, Fla. "It's not really a healthy situation."

Suburb-dwellers, so accustomed to a landscape of control, are uninterested to having wild ecosystems next door. But the reporter found a different attitude towards the fish on the Left Coast:
"This is how we are supposed to take care of things,'' says Robert Kloepping, who lives next to a vacant home with a pool containing mosquito fish in Antioch, Calif. "I think it's cool, man. It's organic."

California's Contra Costa County also maintains an indoor colony of mosquitoes and has hired a staff entomologist, Steve Schutz, for scientific research on these new ecosystems of suburban foreclosure. One of Mr. Schutz's responsibilities is to keep the research mosquitoes alive with a regular "blood meal."
"He usually reads a book or works on a puzzle while the mosquitoes bite him for about 20 minutes. 'I have been doing it so long that it doesn't even itch that much,' he says. The district used to use a bobwhite quail for the blood meal, but Mr. Schutz says it's less hassle to offer up his arm."


Turboglacier said...

Um- would it not be easier just to pump the water out of a swimming pool, than to repeatedly spray it with pesticides? Surely if someone ever buys one of these abandoned houses, the first thing they're going to do anyway is drain the pool and start over with clean water?

C Neal said...

I'm told that draining a pool, at least in CA, ruins it: without water to hold it down, the concrete shell will float up out of the soil and crack. So the official policy is to leave the water in.