Vancouver Lake, Silver Lake restoration efforts share some challenges

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

VANCOUVER LAKE

Type: natural.

Size: 2,414 acres.

Average depth: 3-5 feet.

Pollutants/problems:

blue-green algae, turbidity, PCBs, dioxins, chlorinated pesticides.

Location: Clark County.

Source: Washington State

Department of Ecology

SILVER LAKE

Type: reservoir.

Size: 2,300 acres.

Average depth: 6 feet.

Pollutants/problems: blue-green algae, turbidity, phosphorous, very little vegetation.

Location: Cowlitz County.

Source: Washington State

Department of Ecology

photoClick on map to enlarge
photoClick on map to enlarge

SILVER LAKE -- Elmer Nofziger stepped onto a narrow dock, walking stick in hand. Standing under cloudy skies, he peered into cloudy water.

Nofziger has called Silver Lake his home for 16 years and watched it evolve during that time. But the 2,300-acre lake, a sprawling body just east of Castle Rock in Cowlitz County, has not changed for the better.

Nofziger knows the situation well: a large, shallow lake that’s popular for recreation, but plagued by pollution, toxic algae blooms and high turbidity.

Sound familiar?

Vancouver Lake suffers many of the same problems, documented through decades of studies, plans, public partnerships and millions of dollars in restoration work. Residents near Silver Lake are in the middle of an effort to diagnose and clean up the ailing water body in their own backyard. And they’ve looked to Vancouver Lake as an example of what to do -- or what not to do.

Both efforts may hold implications for Clark County. Many see Vancouver Lake as the local treasure, if perhaps an underappreciated one. Silver Lake draws some local recreation of its own, as a gateway for boating and fishing on the way to Mount St. Helens.

The two lakes and their ailments appear to have a lot in common. But similar symptoms don’t always point to the same disease.

“A cold looks like a flu,” said Ron Wierenga, a manager in Clark County’s environmental services department. “The reasons behind those may be very, very different.”

Reaching out

Nofziger’s living room makes it clear that Silver Lake is not simply a casual interest for him. More than a dozen white binders, some several inches thick, cover one table with years of history and research. Maps lie strewn across another table. A bookshelf holds more folders and documents, under a neon-yellow “NOFZIGER” sign that used to adorn his old shoe business in Portland.

“I’m not the kind of person that just lets things go by,” Nofziger said. “I do my own investigating as much as I possibly can -- as you can see.”

Nofziger, 73, was a driving force behind a citizen advocacy group that pushed for better management of the lake and its watershed as early as 2005. That led to the formation of the Silver Lake Watershed Advisory Council, officially recognized by Cowlitz County since 2010.

Last fall, Nofziger and other Silver Lake advocates met with a few players from the Vancouver Lake Partnership, hoping to learn some lessons from the decades-old restoration effort in Clark County. Wierenga said the Vancouver Lake group gave a presentation it’s used in local outreach efforts, detailing both past and present work at the lake.

Nofziger called the talk “outstanding.” He said it opened his eyes to some of the physical similarities of the two lakes. Both cover well over 2,000 acres with little depth, only a few feet in places. Both have water quality and algae issues that have kept swimmers out of the water at times. Both have a locally led restoration effort pushing for their survival.

But each faces a different fight in a markedly different setting. While the parklike Vancouver Lake is a natural body next door to an urban area, Silver Lake is actually a reservoir, managed by a dam at its east end. Private land mostly surrounds Silver Lake’s shores, between two small towns and a landfill to the south.

Ultimately, last fall’s meeting left Nofziger discouraged. He listened to everything the Vancouver Lake Partnership has going for it -- decades of research, a Herculean restoration effort in the 1980s, and a broad coalition of public agencies, local organizations and other stakeholders fully behind it. Yet even with all that, he said, the lake still struggles.

At Silver Lake, advocates don’t have those kinds of resources at their fingertips.

“That’s where I started to wonder,” Nofziger said, “whether or not we were going to get this done.”

Vancouver Lake ‘a gem’

Vancouver Lake’s history is one of slow, steady decline. But that doesn’t shake the optimism of the people trying to rescue it.

Perhaps the biggest milestone in that effort came in the early 1980s, when a $17 million restoration project -- the nation’s largest -- dredged a huge amount of sediment from the bottom of the lake, and built a channel to flush out contaminants with more water from the Columbia River. The excess sediment created the island that now dots the north side of Vancouver Lake.

The work made an undeniable impact. But it didn’t reverse the lake’s ultimate course. Sediment has built back up in the past 30 years, accumulating both in the flushing channel and in the lake itself, reducing its already shallow depth.

Crowded by development and agricultural activity around it, the 2,400-acre Vancouver Lake remains plagued by pollutants today -- polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and pesticides among them. Toxic blue-green algae blooms have routinely closed the lake to swimming in recent summers.

That doesn’t mean past efforts were a failure, Wierenga said. There’s no finish line when it comes to restoration work. Vancouver Lake is a complex, ever-changing environment, and there’s still more to do, he said.

“The reality is, we are where we are,” Wierenga said. “Let’s use the history of the lake and the previous restoration effort to help inform us as we move forward.”

A $750,000 study led by the U.S. Geological Survey aims to fill in data gaps on how the lake functions. The three-year study, now in its second year, will in part examine the behavior of its smaller tributaries, including Burnt Bridge Creek and Lake River, looking at how water flows in and out of Vancouver Lake. The end result will help the partnership take a better-informed next step -- in other words, avoid an “expensive mistake,” Wierenga said.

Even in ailing health, tranquil Vancouver Lake remains a beloved recreation spot for rowing, sailing and swimming. Alan Stewart’s Vancouver Lake Crew club hits the water nearly every day, rain or shine. For those who use it, the lake is a resource worth fighting for, he said.

“In my opinion, it’s really a gem to the community and the city,” Stewart said. “I’ve found that many people in the community don’t even know it exists.”

Silver Lake: ‘It is home’

Ask three people the main source of Silver Lake’s problems and you might get three different answers.

Some point to speed-boaters and visitors. Others blame nearby development and residents. Many look no further than a Weyerhaeuser-owned industrial landfill, located just south of Silver Lake. (Cowlitz County commissioners recently approved purchasing the landfill site for the county to use.)

“Silver Lake is not just one problem,” said Gary Fredricks, director of Washington State University’s Cowlitz County extension. “It’s a multitude of problems.”

At least one turning point is clear: The lake’s physical makeup changed dramatically after 1992. That’s when state ecology officials introduced grass carp to control heavy vegetation in the shallow water, which some felt hindered recreational use of the lake.

The plan may have worked too well. The fish -- about 83,000 of them -- wiped out virtually all plant life in the water, leaving a barren field of sediment at the bottom of Silver Lake. It hasn’t been the same since.

“Whoever came up with the stock rate wildly overestimated what they needed to get the job done,” said Kathy Hamel, an aquatic plant specialist with the state Department of Ecology. “Obviously, they got it wrong.”

Most of the vegetation never came back, erasing the plants that cling to firm soil and keep the lake bed stable. The loose mud that’s left is easily kicked up by boats and wind, making turbidity a chronic problem.

Silver Lake is in the midst of a new diagnosis today, led by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. In January, officials began collecting water samples to better identify which pollutants are present in the water. They’re gauging known problems -- turbidity and phosphorus, for example -- and testing other factors such as pH, water temperature and E. coli. The results should help clarify what’s causing some of Silver Lake’s problems, said Stacie Kelsey, a scientist with DFW’s inland fish program.

As past efforts go, Silver Lake simply hasn’t seen the extensive in-water work that Vancouver Lake has. But Cowlitz County leaders over the years have compiled stacks of documents from old studies and plans at Silver Lake, fed by nearby Sucker Creek and Hemlock Creek.

The latest restoration push is in a relatively early stage, and enjoys at least some backing from local government officials. Cowlitz County Commissioner James Misner said the county kicked in about $18,000 for the two-year water testing work.

The lake remains a magnet for boaters and fishermen, and an economic boost for the businesses and communities that surround it in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. With yearly tournaments, Silver Lake is still considered one of the best bass-fishing spots in the area.

For some, it’s much more than that.

“It is home to a lot of people,” Misner said. “This was a life investment for them as much as it was a real estate investment.”

Hurdles

Axel Swanson has seen the problems on both lakes first-hand. A Cowlitz County commissioner between 2007 and 2011, he worked extensively on Silver Lake and the effort to improve its health. He now works as a senior policy analyst in the Clark County commissioners’ office, where Vancouver Lake is very much on the radar.

Swanson has seen both restoration efforts gain renewed momentum recently. But both still struggle with political and financial hurdles, he said.

“The thing they share most in common is these questions around who’s responsible for them,” Swanson said. “There really isn’t a single parent or guardian for the lakes.”

The state ecology department axed its broad lake monitoring program more than a decade ago due to lack of funding. State officials say they’re simply not in a position to lead the charge in restoration efforts like the ones happening at Vancouver Lake and Silver Lake.

Advocates on the ground share the same challenge, with grant funds increasingly hard to come by. Many public budgets are thin and getting thinner. And it takes money to go from study to action.

“There’s a huge jump,” Swanson said, “between diagnosing the problem and implementing the fix for the problem.”

Even with resources, advocacy groups at Vancouver Lake and Silver Lake may be fighting a losing battle against the lakes themselves, said Hamel of the ecology department. They may only delay the inevitable, she said.

Any lake goes through a natural life cycle, and a shallow lake filling in with sediment is likely near the end of that cycle, Hamel said. Vancouver Lake fits that profile. Silver Lake resembles a “wetland that’s masquerading as a lake,” she said.

None of that has stopped both communities from making a push to reverse -- or at least slow -- the downward trend.

“They do fill in. It is natural,” Hamel said. “But if you’re living around a lake, you really want to turn that clock back.”

Not alone

The problems that beset Vancouver Lake and Silver Lake aren’t unique to those spots alone. Swanson pointed to Lake Sacajawea in Longview and Horseshoe Lake as two others in Southwest Washington with ailments of their own. DFW’s latest round of water testing at Silver Lake is concurrently studying Horseshoe Lake, which sits on the Clark-Cowlitz county line.

Nofziger has seen it his whole life. He grew up outside Salem, Ore., living near a polluted Willamette River. He spent years in a floating home on the Willamette in Portland, staring down the same problems. Then he moved to the shore of Silver Lake, taking a front-row seat to a new struggle.

In nearby Toutle, Nofziger points to a success story at Harry Gardner Park, where volunteer strength and community spirit helped clean up a local asset. He’s hoping for the same spirit at Silver Lake. He’s just not sure of the outcome.

“It’s certainly not going to be a quick fix,” Nofziger said. “And I’m concerned that we may not be able to fix it at all.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.