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News / Clark County News

Lacamas Shores biofilter dispute divides neighbors in Camas

Resident of luxury subdivision sues, alleges association allows runoff to pollute lake

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 27, 2023, 6:05am
5 Photos
Homes in Lacamas Shores, left, are visible through the neighborhood's overgrown biofilter near Lacamas Lake, right.
Homes in Lacamas Shores, left, are visible through the neighborhood's overgrown biofilter near Lacamas Lake, right. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — Earlier this month, a Clark County Superior Court judge ruled that a Camas homeowners’ association violated its covenants by failing to maintain a biofilter, which the complainant argues is polluting Lacamas Lake.

Lacamas Shores, a neighborhood of luxury homes along the lake’s southwest shore, has a biofilter that was once considered a state-of-the-art system. The mix of native grasses and aquatic plants were intended to absorb phosphates and nitrogen, or nutrients that feed toxic algae blooms, from the development’s stormwater runoff.

The homeowners’ association closely maintained the biofilter for the first five years of its existence, and it excelled at capturing nutrients. But that was in the 1980s.

Now, the system is severely degraded and contributing to Lacamas Lake’s current algae bloom, according to Steve Bang, a Lacamas Shores resident who sued his homeowners’ association. The biofilter, once a meadow, is now covered with tall alder trees, gnarled blackberry brambles and ponds covered with thin films of sludge.

“It turns out, I’m suing myself as an HOA member,” said Bang, who moved to the neighborhood in 1999. “(Residents) ask me, ‘Why?’ My answer is, ‘Why are you not?’”

In August 2021, Bang filed a lawsuit in federal court under the Citizen’s Clean Water Act, alleging the biofilter is discharging pollutants in Lacamas Lake. That case is ongoing.

Lacamas Shores Homeowners’ Association President Don Trost, who assumed his role in 2021, couldn’t speak to the association’s biofilter management prior to his involvement on the board. He acknowledged the association had limited activity in the biofilter’s maintenance, calling it “benign neglect,” yet contended the situation has been misconstrued.

“There is an implication that we’ve been irresponsible,” Trost continued. “I think it’s unfair to the members.”

In 2021, the homeowners’ association commissioned an analysis from Seattle-based environmental consultant Landau Associates to investigate claims surrounding the biofilter’s water quality and create plans for its restoration.

“We are not ignoring the problem,” Trost said. “It just took longer because of the litigation.”

Due to the ongoing federal lawsuit, the association will not release any information from the Landau report.

Trost said the biofilter strife partly centers on residents’ desire for tree removal in the biofilter’s wetlands, as they obstruct lake views from Lacamas Shores homes and reduce property values. The effort isn’t solely focused on water quality.

For Bang, this wasn’t a secret.

“You can have two reasons for wanting to do something,” he said, arguing a homeowners’ association exists to protect property values.

Put to the test

Former Lacamas Shores resident Marie Tabata Callerame pointed to independently collected water samples in September 2020 to back Bang’s case. She said the tests showed the biofilter had a reverse effect from its intended use, pouring concentrated amounts of nutrients into the lake instead of absorbing them.

These results can be found on www.lacamasshoresbiofilter.org, a website that Bang, Callerame and other concerned residents manage.

Trost said the data isn’t enough to back assertions that Lacamas Shores is polluting Lacamas Lake, saying “typical environmental studies are a minimum of one year in duration, so you understand seasonal effects.”

Similarly, Camas officials maintain that Lacamas Creek, which flows into the lake from the northwest, is the main source of water and nutrients.

The creek provides the largest volume of water to Lacamas and Round lakes and makes up 73 percent of the total load of nutrients, according to the city’s latest test results.

“Based on all of the data we’ve collected, (the Lacamas Shores area) is a very, very, very small percentage of nutrients,” said Steve Wall, Camas Public Works director. He noted water samples were gathered at historical data collection points, none of which were near the neighborhood’s biofilter.

For those urging action from the Lacamas Shores Homeowners’ Association, they don’t tag the biofilter as Lacamas Lake’s largest source of nutrients, rather it’s low hanging fruit — an easily identifiable problem that has a solution.

“Fix the biofilter and maintain its overgrowth,” Bang said. “It’s plain and simple.”

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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