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Pool patrol sinks potential problem

Profile: County staff looks for mosquito larvae in the yards of abandoned homes in the SCV

Posted: August 29, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 29, 2011 1:55 a.m.
County vector control specialist Jeremy Uhlenkott inspects a sample of water for mosquito larvae from a pool at a vacant home in Canyon Country on Thursday. County vector control specialist Jeremy Uhlenkott inspects a sample of water for mosquito larvae from a pool at a vacant home in Canyon Country on Thursday.
County vector control specialist Jeremy Uhlenkott inspects a sample of water for mosquito larvae from a pool at a vacant home in Canyon Country on Thursday.

It's 105 degrees, and Vector Control Specialist Jeremy Uhlenkott is ready for the swimming pool. Not to swim, but to work.

From the back of his Los Angeles County pickup truck, he takes a tool that looks like a big soup ladle with a handle as long as a golf club.

Uhlenkott prepares to wield the tool over a pea-green-colored swimming pool in Sand Canyon.

Uhlenkott's job is to turn green pools into safe pools.

"Green pools" are swimming pools that turn from clean and refreshing into stagnant and rich with algae - where mosquitoes breed.

And those mosquitoes can carry the sometimes-deadly West Nile virus, cases of which are detected in the Santa Clarita Valley each summer.

The pools often belong to homes that have fallen into foreclosure and been abandoned.

Green pools can be spotted from the air, but searching for them by air is expensive, Uhlenkott said.

Most of them are reported to the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District by neighbors who live nearby.

"It only takes a week or two for a pool to get this green," Uhlenkott said as he tests the pool in Sand Canyon, leaves and other detritus floating in it. "If the pump's not running and it's not being chlorinated, it takes about a week or two to get like this.

"They start out like this, then they get darker," he added.

He finds all sorts of things in abandoned pools besides the usual leaves and dirt - floating bloated bodies of rats that fall in and can't get out, abandoned furniture.

"Once, I found a palm tree growing in the deep end," he said.

Occupants leaving foreclosed houses usually pack up their things but seldom drain the pool, he said. That leaves behind a breeding ground for mosquito larvae.

The West Nile virus is transmitted to humans and animals through mosquito bites and was first detected in the United States in 1999 in New York City.

The symptoms are flu-like and include fever, headache and body aches.

There is no treatment for the virus. Fewer than 20 percent of those infected develop symptoms, and about 1 percent develop serious illness.

Deaths among humans are rare, but they do happen. Horses can also get the virus.

Foreclosed homes
Today, Uhlenkott's truck is parked in the driveway of a sprawling ranch-style home on Circle-G Drive. The four-bedroom, three-bath home is vacant.

Notices are taped to its windows, front and back, warning trespassers to keep out.

But, Uhlenkott has permission to be here, and he walks straight to the back.

"We're lucky today; a lot of times there's a lock on the gate to the backyard," he said.

He walks to the edge of the stylishly shaped green pool, dips his ladle into the water and pulls it up to his nose as if he were a chef about to taste his soup.

In less than five seconds, he finds what he came here for - mosquito larvae.

"See there?" he said, pointing to a speck among a dozen other specks.

"You see it? See him wiggling?

"I've been looking at them for 10 years," he adds.

The wiggling speck is the reason he visits a half-dozen local green pools in the Santa Clarita Valley every day.

Each foreclosed home with a swimming pool gets Uhlenkott's attention.

Once he finds the first signs of mosquitoes, he reaches into his satchel and throws what look like barbecue briquettes into the swimming pool. These are chunks of pesticide specifically made to kill mosquito larvae and only mosquito larvae.

Uhlenkott throws a couple into the home's abandoned hot tub for good measure.

Sometimes, he uses mosquitofish as an organic way of getting rid of larvae - but not today.

Environmental alternative
The mosquitofish is native to southern and eastern portions of the United States.

It is not indigenous to the Santa Clara River watershed, but it was introduced to California 85 years ago.

Since then, public health officials have reported the tiny fish is among the more effective methods of controlling mosquitoes.

After tossing the pesticide into the green pool, Uhlenkott takes out a plastic spray bottle and squirts a layer of transparent fluid on top of the water. This coats the water with a layer that makes it difficult for the larvae to break the surface and breathe.

Homeowners who suffer the misfortune of foreclosure sometimes abandon other bodies of backyard water besides pools - fountains, ponds and even streams.

But that's not the case at the Circle-G residence, and Uhlenkott's job is done - for now.

He'll return every month to each of the green pools on his list until the homes are no longer abandoned.


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