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News / Clark County News

Vancouver Lake has long, unique geologic history

Body of water is at least 4,000 years old, tied to sea level

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 22, 2023, 6:12am

Vancouver Lake’s uniqueness is largely unknown, even to those who frequently visit it.

Core sampling indicates that Vancouver Lake dates back at least 4,000 years. It has attracted attention for centuries, including from Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose journals record the lake in 1805.

The mechanisms that support Vancouver Lake and other lakes in the Portland-Vancouver Basin are remarkable, according to Curt Peterson, a retired Portland State University geology professor who researched the area’s geomorphology.

Water levels rise and fall in the Columbia River extending up to Bonneville Dam, a twice-daily tidal fluctuation.

“River” is a slight misnomer for this stretch of water, according to Peterson. It’s actually a fluvial-tidal system, meaning it’s influenced by ocean tides. Water bodies in floodplains are more commonly temporary, getting washed away as a river flows back and forth — otherwise tapped as ephemeral, or short-lasting, lakes.

This combination of rivers and tides forms “bull’s-eye” lakes in the Portland-Vancouver Basin, including Vancouver Lake. Some bull’s-eye lakes here are as old as 8,000 years, though many have been submerged by rising water. It’s a system that is unlike nearly every other river system in the world, another being the Amazon River.

Vancouver Lake isn’t a dying lake in the sense that it will eventually dry up — a worldwide occurrence exacerbated by climate change and water mishandling — because it’s tied to the sea level. As sea level rises, water in the ground also rises and feeds the basin.

“The lake does not die, at least not if people manage it properly,” Peterson said. “That lake will not go away. Give it another 5,000 or 10,000 years, and it will be submerged.”

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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.
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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