Group reflects on Vancouver Lake

After 10 years, partnership formed to address lake's problems weighs what future will hold

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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If there's one thing a decade of studying the ailing health of Vancouver Lake has revealed, it's this: Fixing it won't come easy.

"There's no silver bullet," said Patty Boyden, environmental services director at the Port of Vancouver.

Ten years after its formation, the group that has spearheaded extensive research and advocacy for the lake now faces a crossroads. The Vancouver Lake Watershed Partnership and its members say they've greatly improved the community's understanding of a complex ecosystem. They've laid out several possible actions that could improve Vancouver Lake, still plagued by toxic algae blooms, pollution and other problems. But the group also faces an uncertain path forward with local agreements set to expire and future funding up in the air.

photoClick to enlarge.

Now the question is: What happens next?

Conversations in the coming year could include what form the partnership takes in the future, Boyden said, whether it's the same partnership, a nonprofit, a watershed council or something else. The group is financially backed now by the port, 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.

A report published by the partnership in December offered a detailed summary of all the research the group has helped facilitate during the past 10 years. The document was intended to recap what the community has learned about the lake since the partnership was formed, said Ron Wierenga, a program manager in Clark County's Environmental Services department. It's also a way to show people what has been accomplished with all of the time and money that has been directed toward Vancouver Lake, he said.

"It's a good idea to just sort of stop and assess where you are and look at what you know," Wierenga said. "Doing that through this type of a report … it's a good way to wrap all that up and give us a tool to communicate to people."

Partnership beginnings

The partnership formed in 2004, largely in response to blue-green algae blooms that routinely closed the lake to the public and created a health hazard. Leaders hoped to gain a better understanding of Vancouver Lake's problems, and what was causing them.

Among their findings: Those toxic blooms can occur naturally even in pristine lakes far from human influence. But blooms at Vancouver Lake are also fueled by nutrients that enter the lake from a variety of sources.

Studies also found the primary source of some of the lake's pollutants is its connection to Lake River — not the troubled Burnt Bridge Creek, which also connects to the lake. The lake also struggles with turbidity and sediment buildup.

"It has really been a process where we've learned a great deal," Boyden said. "We now have a good solid baseline (of) data for the lake."

The partnership's recent efforts are far from the first to help the sprawling but shallow body covering some 2,300 acres in west Vancouver. In the 1980s, a milestone restoration effort 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 didn't reverse the lake's ultimate course. Sediment built back up in the next 30 years. The lake's average depth is only a few feet.

December's report listed several possibilities for new restoration work. Those include constructed wetlands and plants to absorb algae-fueling nutrients, a water control structure or additional sediment removal. But those options would come with price tags measuring in the millions, according to the report.

'Wonderful asset'

The partnership still has about $150,000 in the bank to plan its evolution. The group may hire a facilitator to direct that process in the coming year.

Vancouver resident Gary Kokstis has been involved with the partnership since its inception. He's among many who view Vancouver Lake as a valuable — if under-appreciated — local treasure.

"It's actually a wonderful asset for the city and the county," said Kokstis, also a member of the Vancouver Lake Sailing Club. "It's a gem of a place."

For Jacquelin Edwards, the lake might be considered part of her front yard. She lives at Felida Moorage on Lake River, and can paddle directly to the lake from her home. Edwards said she'd like to see continued access to the lake, even for people who haven't yet discovered it.

"It's amazing sometimes that people don't even know about Vancouver Lake," said Edwards, herself a member of the partnership.

Among the group's other recommendations are expanded trails and boat access around the lake, while maintaining the existing balance between the natural and built environment in the area.

As the partnership talks over its next steps, it's unclear how soon any such work may materialize. Many members acknowledge they still need to learn more about the lake before tackling something on a large scale.

Group members know this much: They're in a better position to take care of the lake than they were a decade ago.

"It's been an interesting journey over the last 10 years," said Brian Carlson, public works director for the city of Vancouver. "I think going into it at the very beginning, many people thought that all was needed was one or two silver bullet fixes."