Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Nov. 30, 2021

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Donnelly: Vancouver Lake merits public-private partnership

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Vancouver Lake, deeded to the Port of Vancouver in 1919, is a subject of discussion in the election campaign for District 2 port commissioner. Has the current commission provided effective leadership to preserve the lake’s health, safety and utility?

This is a worthy discussion. Aside from the Columbia River itself, the lake is Vancouver’s largest body of water. In recent years, blooms of milfoil, algae, bacteria and nonindigenous carp have changed the lake for the worse. These are symptoms of root causes that are irreversible without sustained, targeted human intervention.

Lewis and Clark’s journals for 1805 mention “a fine open prairie and a pond” — the future Vancouver and Vancouver Lake. It is part of the floodplain of the mighty Columbia River, influenced by both river flow and ocean tides. 

A 2015 study led by Portland State University geologist Curt D. Peterson documented our lake’s origin at approximately 4,000 years ago — 10,000 years after the great ice-age floods roared down the ancestral Columbia River.

Peterson classes Vancouver Lake as one the largest “bullseye lakes” formed by winding river channels.  Peterson’s conclusion: “future maintenance and preservation … (is) entirely dependent on restoring floodplain groundwater surface levels and corresponding lake water levels.”

Easier said than done. 

As recently as the 1930s, Vancouver Lake flooded annually.  It shimmered with abundant and healthy water. Families recall swimming, boating, hunting and fishing on the lake. 

Then, dams on the river, starting with Bonneville in 1938, were needed to provide affordable electricity to the growing population, but they altered the floodplain.  The deadly 1948 Vanport Flood led to the U.S. Flood Control Act of 1950, construction of the Priest Rapids Dam and the 1961 Columbia River Treaty with Canada. 

Fast forward to 2021 and we find a shallow lake — averaging just 4 feet deep. Dangerous bacteria and algae periodically close the lake to swimmers and force cancellation of sailing, kayaking and rowing events. Economic losses for sporting events are estimated at $4 million per year. Further decline of the lake, to the point of no return, would be costly and unsightly.

Over the years, half-hearted efforts have addressed the decline. In 1983, the port commissioned a flushing channel. Underfunded and under-designed, it has underperformed. The 1995 Burnt Bridge Creek Watershed Plan addressed high levels of phosphorus and other pollution from stream-flows into the lake. Important but just a partial solution.

In 2004, multiple public agencies with intertwining responsibilities formed the Vancouver Lake Watershed Partnership. Leadership was flimsy and the lake declined further.

Finally, in 2017, private citizens founded Friends of Vancouver Lake. Outperforming previous efforts, they raised funds and removed invasive milfoil and carp. Addressing the need for a comprehensive plan, the group recently commissioned an engineering study to get to the heart of the matter.

A public-private partnership is needed to acquire and direct funding. Friends of Vancouver Lake needs a public sponsor — the ports of Vancouver and Ridgefield are obvious choices — to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Clark County government also plays a role.

Vancouver Lake is too influential here to be dismissed as a frill.  Whether healthy or unhealthy, whether beautiful or unsightly, whether a moneymaker or a drain on our economy, Vancouver Lake will make its presence known.

If we allow the lake’s decline to pass the point of no return, inevitably voters will ask, “why wasn’t something done?”

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