Los Angeles Times - May 3, 2009
by Ashley Powers
'Green pools' sprout from foreclosures - In Las Vegas and across the
West, health officials take measures to keep abandoned pools from
breeding mosquitoes and disease.
Reporting from Las Vegas — In the arid Southwest, the backyard pool
was the equivalent of the white picket fence: a sign the homeowners
had achieved middle-class status. But as the foreclosure crisis
emptied neighborhoods, the once-gleaming pools -- caked with algae
and infested with mosquitoes -- became fetid reminders of all that
One afternoon in Las Vegas, Robert Cole approached a
3,215-square-foot house on Bracken Cliff Court, armed with his chief
weapon against the mosquito scourge: a container of silvery fish. A
"For Sale" sign advertised the pool and spa out back. You could
smell them from the frontyard.
The deck area near the small pool was decorated with red rocks and
outfitted with a blue basketball hoop. On the water's surface, a
slick of green algae inched toward a rubber duck.
Cole tossed four fish into the spa and six into the pool, and a few
drops of water splashed him. "Ugh," he grimaced. "I got that nasty
stuff on me."
Cole, 36, is an environmental health specialist with the Southern
Nevada Health District. He and six others are charged with stopping
the pools from becoming disease incubators. In recent years, as Sin
City turned into Foreclosure City, the team has been swamped.
The number of "green pool" complaints has jumped to 2,800 in 2008,
from about 1,600 in 2007. This year, the health district received
nearly 500 complaints from January through March, an 80% increase
over the same time last year.
And there are few signs of complaints trailing off: In the first
quarter of 2009, Nevada had the nation's top foreclosure rate,
according to RealtyTrac.
The pool problem exists throughout the West.
"As the economy went south, the number of green pools went north,"
said Chris Conlan, supervising vector ecologist in San Diego
County's Department of Environmental Health, which stages weekly
helicopter flyovers to spot rancid pools.
California, Arizona and Florida also rely on Gambusia affinis, or
mosquitofish. The inches-long creatures can survive for months in
stagnant water, and to them, a batch of larvae is a prime-rib
In Contra Costa County in Northern California, officials breed up to
2 million fish a year, and some residents bring them home in coffee
cans. The county's Mosquito and Vector Control District has also
subscribed to foreclosure listing services to spot possible
"In the past, you'd just tell homeowners to take care of their
backyards," said Craig Downs, the district's general manger. "But in
the last two years, nobody's been home."
In Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix, authorities are
on track to respond to 14,000 pool complaints this year, said John
Townsend, vector control division manager. They'll need a sea's
worth of fish.
"You get backyard swamps here, and it's no different than in Texas
or Louisiana," he said.
About 50 fish are needed to rid a 400-square-foot pool of
mosquitoes, Townsend said, though some neighbors misguidedly douse
the pool water with chlorine, wipe out the fish and force health
officials to start over. Last summer, officials imported fish and
bred them in a stingray tank at the Phoenix Zoo. (The rays are
relocated to less-sweltering Chicago each summer, Townsend said.)
Desert heat creates other problems. Mosquitoes there breed
year-round, and the hotter it gets, the busier it gets for vector
The problem has grown so expensive in Nevada that state lawmakers
are considering allowing some health districts to put liens on
properties whose owners won't reimburse them for mosquito abatement,
said Assemblyman Joe Hardy, one of the bill's sponsors.
In Las Vegas, Cole began a recent day outside town at wash where a
colony of mosquitofish -- how it got there is unclear -- is
thriving. Wearing a Dickies button-down and calf-high waders, he
scooped dozens of fish from the mossy water, transferred them into
buckets and carted them in a truck to health district headquarters.
Outside a parking lot trailer, he dumped the fish into one of four
black 100-gallon horse troughs, each of which hold about 2,000 fish.
Then Cole swung by his office -- a bumper sticker on his cubicle
proclaims "Mosquitoes Suck" -- and picked up a list of addresses for
his afternoon rounds.
With a few dozen fish in a container, he headed to Desert Wind
Drive, where azaleas bloom in some yards and bank-owned signs mar
The five-bedroom home was peach-colored, its lawn brown, its palm
fronds crispy. The house sold for $429,000 almost four years ago,
but in 2008 Deutsche Bank took possession.
"One day, the owner walked over and said, 'Well, got to go, bye,' "
neighbor Cal Oliver told Cole, who was greeted with smiles and
thank-yous. (Pool owners and pit bulls tend to be less welcoming.)
Cole surveyed the pool, where the water was a few inches deep.
Mineral oil, he decided, would be his weapon of choice. He spritzed
the oil on the murky rainwater -- to suffocate mosquito larvae --
and returned to his list.
Cole, who moved here from San Diego County a decade ago, had watched
from afar as the Vegas housing market mimicked a roller coaster.
Two things persuaded him not to buy a house. He found prices too
high, especially in homes big enough for him, his wife, six kids and
three Chihuahuas. And yet, a woman bagging his groceries told him
she owned two homes. How could she afford them?
"She's probably got two green pools now," Cole said.
Cole drove into a neighborhood of decorative fountains and
balconies. The streets were named Bermuda Beach and Swan Lake, and
he parked on Aqua Spray Avenue.
In 2003, this five-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-fireplace home sold
for $323,000. A year ago, Deutsche Bank took over. Before the
residents left, Cole said, they shoveled piles of dog waste into the
pool. Why? Who knows.
He's been here half a dozen times since. The large pool was once
stocked with mosquitofish. Then it was drained. Lately, it has held
rainwater the color of mud. All Cole could do was shake his head,
spray mineral oil and post a notice he's not sure anyone will read:
"Please maintain the property so it does not become a breeding
source for mosquitoes."