print Font Size: small font medium font large font

World Cafe promotes interactive discussion about mercury and Almaden Lake

World Cafe - Almaden LakeWater District Chief Operating Officer Chris Elias sat down at the round table. He clasped his hands together and glanced up and down at the faces of those seated with him, breaking the silence by smiling and pointing at one of the residents to ask, “And you? What do you think of all this?”

Initially surprised, as if incredulous to someone wanting to know her opinion, she slowly began to talk, adding her voice to the collective murmurs flowing throughout the packed room. Heads nodded in agreement or faces frowned with etches of concern as the discussion continued around the tables.

This was the World Café, a first of its kind public meeting approach for the Santa Clara Valley Water District where the audience engaged in active dialogue about several water district project alternatives to address one of Almaden Valley’s most pressing challenges: mercury pollution in Almaden Lake.

“It’s a special environment, where people have the opportunity for meaningful dialogue, knowledge sharing and problem solving,” said Linda LeZottte, chairperson of the water district’s board of directors. “We’re here to talk about the best ways to address the problem.”

The 32-acre man-made body of water, once a privately owned gravel quarry, is deteriorating from the influx of elemental mercury from the New Almaden Mines that has settled at its bottom and converted to methlymercury. It’s the most toxic form of mercury, leading to the lake’s designation as one of California’s dirtiest lakes, according to the state Water Resources Control Board.

The still waters of the lake are the main culprit. Engineers, water quality specialists and fish biologists agree that restoring Alamitos Creek to flow as it did before the lake was formed as a result of quarry operations in the early 1940’s will help reduce the mercury problem and make life easier for native fish populations.

At the Oct. 24 meeting in the district’s headquarters building, more than 35 residents sought to learn more about the conceptual solutions for the lake, including:

  • A 100-foot wide channel with lakes to its east and west sides
  • A 100-foot wide channel with a five-acre lake to the west
  • A 100-foot wide channel with five acres of wetland to the west and a 22-acre lake to the east
  • A 100-foot wide channel and a 22-acre lake located to its east, with five acres of new open space to the west
  • A 100-foot wide alignment for Los Alamitos Creek with no lakes
  • No project at all

World Cafe District staff presented the six alternatives, each at a separate table to help promote interactive discussion in a smaller group setting.

The approach worked as intended. Team members reported an engaged and informed audience.

“I was very impressed with the people at the table where I took notes,” said Public Information Representative Ed Morales. “They were very educated and knowledgeable about mercury.”

Now that the water district has collected feedback from the World Café, team leaders will incorporate that input into its decision to narrow down the alternatives to the more feasible ones for Almaden Lake, returning to the community in February 2013 to present its findings.