Thomas Atwater and his wife like to drive around and explore Southwest Washington. They returned to this area after living in the Midwest for decades.
The Salmon Creek residents were recently heading up Northwest Fruit Valley Road, approaching the point where the road curves into Lakeshore Avenue and passes between Burnt Bridge Creek and Vancouver Lake.
The split between the stream and the lake left Atwater curious. Are the bodies of water connected?
“You can’t see an underground passage when you’re on the road. I didn’t see a sign for a bridge. There’s a body of water (at the end of Burnt Bridge Creek), and I didn’t see any movement,” Atwater said.
He submitted his question to The Columbian’s Clark Asks site, where readers ask questions and vote on which should get further coverage.
This answer was straightforward. Yes, Burnt Bridge Creek and Vancouver Lake connect.
At its terminus, Burnt Bridge Creek spreads into a natural wetland area before it discharges into Vancouver Lake through two successive culverts, said Vancouver Public Works spokeswoman Loretta Callahan.
The first segment is a 6-square-foot wide and 110-foot long concrete culvert that lies beneath Lake Shore Avenue and is maintained by the city, Callahan said. The second — a 7-foot arched and flat-bottomed, 100-foot-long concrete culvert – lies beneath the BNSF Railway line and is under federal ownership, she said.
They’ve been there a long time, though it’s hard to say just how long. Callahan said they were likely built decades ago when the railroad and Fruit Valley Road were constructed so those transportation routes didn’t block the creek’s natural flow into the lake.
Burnt Bridge Creek flows westward for about 13 miles from its headwaters in agricultural fields on the east end of Vancouver through the heart of the city until it drains into Vancouver Lake. Shallow groundwater and persistent rain means the creek flows throughout the year.
The creek’s watershed covers about 28 square miles, 70 percent of which lie within the city limits.
Vancouver’s growth has put the creek under pressure from many small, uncontrolled sources of pollution. Stormwater becomes polluted when it flows over roads, roofs and fertilized lawns. The toxic materials find their way into local streams.
There have also been avoidable instances that diminished the creek’s water quality. In 2009, Vancouver city workers discovered that a sewer pipe at a building shared by the state Department of Ecology and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was inadvertently connected to a stormwater line and was dumping sewage into the creek. In 2016, Vancouver-based contractor Cascade Bridge was fined $33,000 for allowing muddy runoff from an Interstate 205 construction site to flow into the creek.
Grants and loans to protect Burnt Bridge Creek and other area streams have consistently trickled into local organizations and programs. Vancouver will receive more than $7 million in grant money from DOE for stormwater projects slated for 2020 through 2022, at least three are tied to Burnt Bridge Creek.
Vancouver Lake, which also has pollution, receives about 2 percent of its annual water flow from Burnt Bridge Creek, said Callahan. The lake’s largest water source is Lake River.
Atwater said he has general environmental concerns about the stream and lake, but he was more curious about the engineering that allowed them to connect.
“We love the greenways. We haven’t walked along Burnt Bridge Creek but we walk along (Salmon Creek Greenway Trail) on a daily basis. Every time we drive to downtown Vancouver, I look for something that connects to the lake, and my wife has to tell me to keep my eyes on the road.”