Golden Years in the Poorest County in the Richest Stateby Lin Waterhouse on 03/15/15
Like so many others before us, my husband and I succumbed to the urge to move closer to our children and grandchildren in our Golden Years. (Kind of a reverse "nesting," I think.) After living twenty years in southern California, six years in Arizona, and thirteen years in the Missouri Ozarks, my husband and I moved to northern California.
We couldn't afford to live in what's called "the bay area." The cost of living there is one of the highest in the world. Even people like teachers, firefighters, and police officers can't afford to live in the areas in which they work unless they bought their homes long before the home values zoomed into the stratosphere. I have read that an income of $140,000+ is necessary to qualify for a loan on even a modest home in San Francisco and its suburbs. To live in one of those lovely places with a expansive view of the bay is prohibitive for all but multimillionaires.
So, we live in Lake County, the poor stepsister of nearby San Francisco, Sonoma, and Napa Counties. The former has the beautiful bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The latter two counties are Wine Country to those people who seek the perfect Chardonnay. Lake County's claim to fame is beautiful Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake in California. Thrusting from its depths is Mt. Konocti, a dormant volcano, dramatic in its black sillouette against the shimmering lake. Surrounded by mountains and vineyards, the lake is the ultimate photo-op.
Only problem with that beautiful lake is its pollution. Although not much rain falls here, when it does it washes heavy metals from the tailings of mines established clear back in the 19th Century. Fertilizer from the agriculture surrounding the lake also washes down its steep slopes encouraging a proliferation of cyanobacteria or "blue green algae" that blooms throughout the waterway. As the growth dies, it rises to the surface forming a toxic, stinking, rotting crust on the water.
The smell of the algae cannot be explained! It's a stench, pure and simple, that fouls the air throughout the summer months when boating, bathing, and swimming should be at a peak. Even eating on the decks of the restaurants positioned for the spectacular view of Clear Lake is virtually impossible unless your sense of smell has departed you. Needless to say, Clear Lake is no longer the destination of summer fun seekers.
The federal government has established the area of old mines as an EPA Super Fund Site. Other efforts to clean the lake have been mixed, and residents voted down three recent attempts to establish a tax to improve the situation. A majority of residents of Lake County, already a disadvantaged and disallusioned lot, seem to have given up.
Here at our home in Hidden Valley Lake, a gated community of 7,000 residents, we enjoy beautiful vistas, mild winters, and tolerably hot summers. Lake County claims the cleanest air in the U.S., even with the lake's pungent odor. We are lucky to have medical care within a ten-minute drive, and a thirty-minute drive over Mount St. Helena gets us into the heart of wine country and to two large hospitals. Our grandchildren love the community's clean little lake that is the heart of our town. Living twenty miles from the beautiful, but smelly, Clear Lake, we treat winter visitors to a scenic drive around the lake's periphery, and in summer, we avoid it like, well, like the plague.
Living in the poorest county in California has its benefits: Home prices are a fraction of those in surrounding counties, and taxes are relatively affordable. In some ways, we love to be able to enjoy beautiful vistas without the scourge of tourists and high prices. However, the county is a financial disaster with little hope of quick renewal. Until the day comes when the lake is clean and visitors discover the allure of Lake County, we will enjoy the relative seclusion and peace of our retirement home. Y'all come see us!