It is Friday afternoon in the dog days of summer and the temperature has been in the high 80s all week.
In Camas, the lure of the open water prompts many to ignore visible warning signs.
Teens jump off a pedestrian bridge near Lacamas Park into water connecting Lacamas and Round lakes. It is the same site where 14-year-old Anthony Huynh drowned in August 2019 after jumping off the bridge into the cold water below. Nearby, signs warn the teens that toxic blue-green algae is present in both Lacamas and Round lakes.
At a boat launch off Leadbetter Road north of Camas, kayakers, boaters and jet skiers unload their watercrafts and head toward the cool waters of Lacamas Lake.
Next to them, a very visible sign at the water’s edge gives a similar warning to those posted near Lacamas Park: “Warning,” the sign reads in bold, yellow block letters. “Toxic algae present. Lake unsafe for people and pets.”
Below that, more warnings: “Until further notice: Do not swim or water ski. Do not drink lake water. Keep pets and livestock away. Clean fish well and discard guts. Avoid areas of scum when boating.”
Judit Lorincz, a Camas mother, understands the dangers associated with the cyanotoxins, often called toxic blue-green algae, that regularly impact Lacamas and Round lakes.
In September 2019, Lorincz took her then 8-year-old daughter to the annual Lacamas Lake cleanup. She had heard about the toxic algae found in the lake water and said she called the city of Camas to see if she should be worried about attending the cleanup event.
“I asked if the city was going to postpone, but was told, ‘No, it’s a go. We think it’s safe because people are not drinking or swimming in the water.’ So we went,” Lorincz said.
The mother-daughter duo spent hours working in a muddy section of the lowered lake, pulling pieces of broken china from the lakebed.
“There was a group of us in that area. It wasn’t just us wondering through muddy slush,” Lorincz said. “The water did seep through my gloves and shoes and went into my daughter’s boots.”
Still, Lorincz didn’t think the amount of water would be enough to affect her or her child. Within 24 hours, however, both Lorincz and her daughter were ill. Lorincz suffered from “horrible” stomach cramps that lasted an entire day. She felt weak and slept for nearly 24 hours. Her daughter spiked a fever of 104 degrees and had respiratory symptoms.
“It felt like I’d been poisoned,” Lorincz said. “I was sweaty and weak. It felt like someone had just sucked all of my energy out of me.”
A conversation with a neighbor on the NextDoor app made Lorincz begin to think maybe their symptoms were connected to the lake cleanup.
After discovering that people could become ill from toxic blue-green algae through inhalation as well as ingestion and skin contact, Lorincz said she was convinced the illness she and her daughter experienced the day after the lake cleanup was connected to the toxic algal bloom.
“I saw the blue-green algae warnings, but had no idea this would happen to me,” Lorincz said. “If I had known that (the toxins could make a person ill through inhalation and skin contact), I probably never would have attended that cleanup.”
According to the Clark County Public Health Department, the cyanobacteria in blue-green algae can “cause significant risks to humans and animals” if ingested, inhaled or through contact with the skin and can cause shortness of breath, rashes, abdominal pain, vomiting and other symptoms. The toxins can be fatal to pets who swallow the water.
Lacamas and Round lakes have both had issues with toxic algal blooms over the past few years. The county monitors algal blooms at the Camas lakes as well as at Vancouver Lake, Battle Ground Lake and Klineline Pond.
The most recent toxic algae warnings at Lacamas and Round lakes went into effect in June.
The search for connections and a cure for Camas’ ‘crown jewel’
A few months after the lake cleanup and her experience with what she believes was a case of cyanotoxin poisoning, Lorincz started to learn about the Lacamas Lake Basin watershed, which drains into Lacamas Lake.
She reached out to her ward representatives on the Camas City Council to talk about the water quality in Lacamas Lake. Councilman Steve Hogan responded.
“He was very interested and we had a couple of coffee meetings and (Hogan) helped educate me about the lake,” Lorincz said.
After hearing from Hogan that a few city leaders had tried to push for an environmental cleanup at the lake several years ago, Lorincz emailed Jerry Acheson, the city’s parks and recreation director, and asked him about the lake’s water quality and about past water-quality studies.
“Jerry reached out to the county and pretty much started the ball rolling,” Lorincz said. “Then, Steve Hogan started organizing inside the city’s walls and asked me if I would be willing to take the lead on (organizing) a citizen’s group.”
Hogan said he’s always been interested in the wellbeing of Lacamas Lake, a body of water often referred to as “the crown jewel of Camas.”
“The lake has always been an issue as far as I’m concerned,” Hogan said. “I’m not a person who is big on boating or swimming, but I could just look at the lake and know it needed some love and care.”
A couple months before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, Hogan decided he would take action.
“Judit and I were talking in October (2019), but the focus was more on the election. She brought up the lake, but it was more a cursory pass in our conversations. I told her, ‘I’d be happy to help you … but I notified her that I thought that (cleaning up the) lake would take about 20 years to get going,'” Hogan said. “Then, after the election, in January, we met at Cafe Piccolo and she mentioned that she and her daughter had gotten sick. That’s what threw up the red flags for me. That’s when it went from talk to action.”
Hogan connected with Acheson as well as the city’s newly elected mayor, Barry McDonnell, and Steve Wall, the city’s public works director. By February, Hogan had retired and was ready to devote more time to the lake cleanup efforts.
At first, things seemed to be rolling ahead nicely. Several stakeholders, including those from Clark County’s water quality and public health divisions and the state’s departments of ecology, agriculture and natural resources, came to the table to talk with the Camas officials, staff and concerned community members.
All agreed it would take time and money and continued effort on the part of the stakeholders to help cleanup Lacamas Lake and prevent cyanotoxin outbreaks that were now happening throughout the year, instead of during the hottest months.
One month later, COVID-19 hit, and government officials scaled everything back to concentrate only on highly essential projects.
“So we get to May and nothing’s happened,” Hogan said of the progress on the lake restoration. “I said to (Mayor McDonnell), ‘We’ve got to attack this.’ I told him, if the county isn’t going to do something, we need to take control.”
Hogan knew the county, like so many government agencies, was “getting hammered” financially during the pandemic.
“(McDonnell, Acheson and I) had a Zoom meeting in June with two (county) councilors and said, ‘Come on guys, we’ve got to do something,'” Hogan said. “We said, ‘We’ve got to take action on the lake. We need to get a coalition of representatives if we’re going to change things.”
Hogan reached out to the state legislators who represent Camas in the 18th District — Sen. Ann Rivers and Reps. Larry Hoff and Brandon Vick — and all three agreed they would support efforts to help restore Lacamas Lake.
“This lake is kind of unique in a lot of different ways,” Hogan said. “We need to get the algae out and make it safe today. That’s the immediate need. But, long-term, the lake is eutrophic (high in phosphorus and nitrogen but lacking oxygen needed to sustain aquatic life) and the fish are having a tough time living there. So we need to look at this long-term and be in it for the long-haul.
Trying to prevent a ‘one-hit wonder’
At a July 20 city council workshop, Hogan told other Camas councilors and McDonnell that he’d been researching the history of the lake and had been working with Lorincz to form a community group that could look at the entire watershed.
“We started (polluting the lake) in 1883, six years before Washington was even a state,” Hogan said at the workshop meeting. “We’ve been polluting the lake for a long time. But this lake and watershed are a key part of our legacy … and we bear responsibility for this lake.”
Built in 1883 to support the Camas paper mill operations, the 2.4-mile-long lake is fed by the 43,000-acre Lacamas Lake Basin, which winds through open fields, private farmland and housing developments, collecting water that eventually flows into Lacamas Creek and then into the lake.
In 2018, Georgia-Pacific gifted more than 180 acres of land and facilities to the city of Camas, including the mill ditch that used to run water from the lake to the mill, and the two Lacamas Creek dams that helped create Lacamas and Round lakes.
Today, the lake is used by a variety of recreational users — even when visible “toxic blue-green algae present” warnings are posted at boat launches and access sites.
“It is a recreational lake,” Hogan told councilors in July. “If you were down there this weekend, you couldn’t even keep (people) out when you told them there was algae there and that they could get seriously ill.”
The city, Hogan said, must make sure the lake is a healthy recreational lake and “remains a jewel for the city for a long time.”
Hogan said that, although the county is ultimately responsible for the lake, he would like to see the city be partially responsible for improving the lake’s water quality and for ensuring that the community group Lorincz is helping establish will not be a “one-hit wonder” that fades into obscurity.
“We ought to own it as long as we’re a city … and be making sure it’s in good condition for our city and citizens,” Hogan said. “We need to dedicate our money and human resources to deal with the lake issues and push them forward.”
Hogan said he would like to see city leaders communicate more regularly with stakeholders about the lake — and to investigate the entire watershed to see what is flowing into the lake.
Hogan also said he is looking for possible partners to help test the storm ponds in the watershed.
“Not all of the storm ponds look healthy,” Hogan said. “Are we actually getting algae developing in those storm ponds and coming into the lake? We need more testing. My thought is that we need to go upstream and find out the root cause of the problem.”
Councilman Don Chaney, who has lived in Camas for 48 years, served as the city’s police chief and been on the council for nearly 13 years, said he views the Lacamas Lake restoration as “the most significant undertaking the city has ever taken.”
“Isn’t it ironic that the majestic diamond of the city is sick, and has been sick for a while?” Chaney said. “I will commit my personal (efforts) and whatever council influence I have to make sure this remains a priority.”
As for Lorincz , she said she has been trying to get up to speed on watershed issues and the various aspects of undertaking such an extensive lake-restoration project.
“People should never expect this lake to be crystal clear,” Lorincz said. “But it can be improved.”
Lorincz said she is in the beginning stages of forming a community group interested in tackling some of the lake’s more long-term problems.
“This group will be a supporter of the city’s efforts, and I’m really thankful the city is prioritizing this,” Lorincz said. “We are working to have unity and be a positive group. A group that is ‘for’ and not ‘against.’ We are not going to have any badmouthing. We will be a group that is for our community and for our lake.”
“This effort needs everyone to be united,” she added. “It will take not just the community and the city, but the county and the state to get this issue fixed.”
Community members interested in joining the community group dedicated to improving the quality of Lacamas Lake should email Lorincz at firstname.lastname@example.org.