Vancouver Lake group ponders merger

Meeting scheduled with Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Vancouver Lake Watershed Partnership plans to explore joining forces with another organization as the group rethinks its role in supporting its namesake ecosystem.

Members are scheduled to meet with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership next month to talk about a possible merger. The Vancouver Lake group discussed several possible paths forward during a meeting earlier this summer, and it ultimately decided to reach out to the Portland-based nonprofit as part of that process.

The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership is already a member agency of the Vancouver Lake Watershed Partnership. Regardless of any outcome, Vancouver Lake will remain a part of the estuary partnership's regional efforts, said executive director Debrah Marriott.

"Whatever they choose, we would continue to be actively involved with them," Marriott said. "Obviously, Vancouver Lake is a great resource, and important to us, too."

The Vancouver Lake Watershed Partnership faces something of a crossroads with local agreements set to expire and future funding uncertain. The group has spent recent months discussing whether it will continue to operate under the same model it has since forming in 2004, or evolve into something different.

The group is financially backed now by the Port of Vancouver, Clark County and the city of Vancouver. Those three agencies have jointly contributed almost all of the $1.3 million that the partnership has worked with during the past 10 years.

But that arrangement was never meant to be permanent, according to those involved. An intergovernmental agreement among the city, county and port will end no later than 2016. And any new funding plan will likely depend on what the partnership becomes.

The partnership has spearheaded extensive research and advocacy for a lake still troubled by pollution, toxic algae blooms and other problems. On the heels of a lengthy report recapping that work, members have spent recent months discussing what should happen next.

"Having that information, this is a really good time to stop and see where we are," said Ron Wierenga, a program manager in Clark County's Environmental Services department.

At a meeting in June, the group floated possibilities that included becoming a nonprofit organization or having Clark County or another agency take on a leadership role. In the end, members decided to reach out to the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership to explore a merger.

The estuary partnership takes on a range of habitat restoration, monitoring and stewardship work on and around the Columbia River roughly from the Cascade Range to the river's mouth at the Pacific Ocean. The organization and its staff could offer technical expertise, financial management and other resources if it absorbed the Vancouver Lake effort, Marriott said.

"It really has to be what makes the most sense for Clark County and Vancouver," she said.

Even with the partnership in transition, advocates say they still want to improve the health and the community's understanding of Vancouver Lake. But past planning and technical work has been cautious, Wierenga said, and rightfully so.

"This is a definitely a complex system that's influenced by a lot of different factors," Wierenga said. "Nobody wants to spend money trying to make improvements that aren't going to happen."