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News / Health / Clark County Health

Keeping Vancouver Lake afloat a complicated challenge

Public can review plan developed to restore its water quality, economic viability

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 22, 2023, 6:13am
9 Photos
Invasive curly leaf pondweed winds around a stalled boat motor at Vancouver Lake.
Invasive curly leaf pondweed winds around a stalled boat motor at Vancouver Lake. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark County is inviting the public to comment on its long-term, 308-page solution to the toxic blue-green algae blooms and noxious plant growth that has plagued Vancouver Lake for years.

The county hired Herrera Environmental Consultants to develop an adaptive Vancouver Lake Management Plan to guide both lake and watershed management. Previous efforts that temporarily improved the lake’s issues included dredging, installing a flushing channel and using herbicide to curb weed growth.

The plan says the city of Vancouver and county must reduce nutrient inputs to the lake from septic and stormwater systems by expanding sanitary programs and replacing degraded infrastructure.

Drainage from the city, homes and golf courses empties directly into a creek that flows into Vancouver Lake, carrying many nutrients — iron, nitrogen and phosphorus — that encourage weed, algae and bacterial growth. Shallow groundwater, though hidden, is the lake’s second source of pollution, which contains the same nutrients.

Sun relentlessly beams onto the water’s roughly 2,600-acre surface. Its shallow depth, at most 5 feet in some areas, makes it easier for weeds and algae to flourish. It has stagnant water, the result of small connections to the Columbia River, Lake River and Burnt Bridge Creek.

Options to better manage the lake include constructing a flow control on Lake River, widening the existing flushing channel to increase inflows from the Columbia River or install floating wetlands to reduce nutrient loads uptake.

“Taken together, this report provides solid initial first steps toward the development of an implementable Comprehensive Lake Management Plan,” Ken Imse, board chair for nonprofit Friends of Vancouver Lake, wrote to the Clark County Council. The group formed in 2019 to address the lake’s woes and restoration, essentially laying the foundation for its management plan.

The public may view the draft and submit comments to Clark County through 5 p.m. July 26, which will be included in its final report.

In April, the Legislature appropriated $330,000 to implement the Vancouver Lake Management Plan through June 2025, which is 7.5 percent of the $4.4 million proposed for the next two years, according to the draft. Yet it is unknown how this will be paid for.

Friends of Vancouver Lake members say there’s another looming issue that makes restoring the lake more difficult: Which of the many entities that own a part of a lake is responsible for investing in its rehabilitation and maintenance?

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife monitors wildlife around the lake, the state Department of Natural Resources controls the lake bed, the state Department of Ecology has authority over the water, Clark County Parks manages a park at the lake, and the Port of Vancouver administers some of the lake’s resources. The Port of Ridgefield may become an additional stakeholder, as it is currently discussing a waterfront development along Lake River.

While the involved entities agree coordination is necessary to improve Vancouver Lake, exactly what they intend to do remains ambiguous. When asked about ownership and investing in restoration, representatives said it’s a matter of determining what regulations fall to which agency.

Vancouver Lake isn’t alone. Lakes on either side of the Columbia River face similar water-quality issues, as well as the bureaucratic push-and-pull between neighboring cities, counties and ports, as well as state and federal agencies. Sturgeon Lake on Sauvie Island, for example, faces toxic algae blooms. Some Oregon lakes have been filled in to ease water-quality pains.

While Friends of Vancouver Lake has spearheaded efforts to improve the lake’s condition, its members realize their role isn’t sustainable for the long-term.

“This is not a job for a small nonprofit,” member Jim Luce said. “This is a job for the government.”

A valuable amenity

It was a rare rainy July day when the small group glided across Vancouver Lake.

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Marlow Bullis, 6, rests on the shoulder of her dad, Vancouver Rowing Club coach Conor Bullis, while on a boat tour.Keeping Vancouver Lake afloat a complicated challenge
Clark County is inviting the public to comment on its long-term, 308-page solution to the toxic blue-green algae blooms and noxious plant growth that has…
An aerial view of Vancouver Lake on Nov.Vancouver Lake has long, unique geologic history
Vancouver Lake’s uniqueness is largely unknown, even to those who frequently visit it.

While sitting on its calm waters, Conor Bullis reached over the boat and dipped his hand through the surface, causing a thin film of blue-green algae to swirl. As the boat sat with its engine off, Friends of Vancouver Lake member Philip Parshley pulled a thick bunch of invasive curly pondweeds from its propeller.

Wisps of fog furled around the surrounding tree line and the cool air provided a reprieve from the previous week’s hot temperatures. On clear days, Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams are clearly visible from the lake. However, that morning it was nearby wildlife that commanded attention.

In the morning’s stillness, a swallow’s wing flutter was audible as it dove toward the water. A long-legged heron stood on a partially sunken log as a dark-feathered cormorant flew overhead. Moments passed before Bullis took advantage of the silence to share how Vancouver Lake is an amenity for both the area’s wildlife and the community.

The Vancouver Lake Sailing Club hosts regattas during high water season. Locals picnic and play volleyball at Vancouver Lake Regional Park, or embark on paddleboards and kayaks.

Most notably, however, the lake is a boon for rowing.

“Most people in Vancouver have no idea that we have a rowing course here that is Olympic-level in terms of accuracy,” said Bullis, who is a coach for the Vancouver Rowing Club.

The lake is a venue for regional and national rowing events. The Portland Vancouver Rowing Association’s racecourse at the lake hosted the 1993 U.S. Rowing Masters National Championship Regatta, the 1998 Nike World Masters Regatta and 2017 Portland Row for the Cure.

Thousands of competitive athletes, their families and coaches, as well as referees, volunteers and audiences who travel to see these events reel in money to the area, Bullis said. An economic impact study, prepared for Friends of Vancouver Lake in 2020, estimated that non-local spending for competitive rowing and sailing events brings in roughly $3.9 million a year.

But the lake’s worsening water quality risks its recreational appeal.

The Northwest Regional Rowing Championship, normally held at Vancouver Lake, was canceled three years in a row due to E. coli posing a risk in addition to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was provisionally moved to Eugene, Ore., and the earliest Vancouver Lake can return as a host site is 2025.

“We have to act soon,” Bullis said.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer