‘There is concern all three lakes will continue to degrade’

City of Camas, state's Ecology take first steps toward cleaning Lacamas, Round and Fallen Leaf lakes, 67-square-mile Lacamas Creek watershed

The signs used to appear infrequently, maybe once every couple years, warning swimmers, kayakers, boaters and dog walkers of a blue-green hazard floating in Camas’ prized Lacamas Lake.

Then, in 2018, the lake — known as “the jewel of Camas” — experienced two toxic algae blooms. By 2019, the algae, which can sicken humans and kill pets, came back at least five times. And by 2020, Lacamas Lake was experiencing what city of Camas staff recently called “near-continual toxic algae blooms” throughout the spring, summer and fall.

And the problem isn’t just impacting Lacamas Lake.

“Nearby Round Lake has also seen increases in blooms, though not as severe, and Fallen Leaf Lake had its first reported bloom,” city staff noted in a 2021 report, adding: “There is concern all three lakes will continue to degrade.”

Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall said 2020’s “near-continual” algal blooms in Lacamas Lake worried many longtime Camasonians.

“There was a big difference from 2019 to 2020,” Wall said of the toxic algae and the number of warning signs that went up around Camas’ largest lake. “When they started seeing caution signs and then, last year, hazard signs, it did draw a lot of attention.”

By the end of 2020, Camas City Council members agreed the lakes’ water-quality issues were a top concern.

“This is a unique lake and it has unique problems,” Camas City Councilman Steve Hogan said in November 2020 about the 2.4-mile-long Lacamas Lake, which is known as a popular water-recreation spot despite its chronic problems with toxic algae and other pollutants, including phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia. “Algae is the No. 1 problem, but there are other problems. … I look at this as a 20-year project.”

Councilman Don Chaney agreed.

“From what I hear in the community, this is one of the top issues,” Chaney said at the same November 2020 city council meeting. “It is critically important, so let’s stay on it and keep it a top priority.”

On Nov. 16, 2020, the council voted unanimously to form a Lacamas Creek Watershed Committee to investigate and advise the city on water quality topics related to the Lacamas Creek watershed. The Council also approved spending up to $300,000 — funded by the city’s stormwater utility fund and, possibly, by state grants — to create lake management plans for Lacamas, Round and Fallen Leaf lakes, establish water quality goals and develop strategies that will improve the lakes’ water quality and, eventually, help prevent toxic algae blooms.

Now, city leaders are poised to select a consultant to help prepare the first phase of the two-part lake management plan.

“We’re making good progress,” Wall said. “We’ve had three meetings with the Lacamas Creek Watershed Committee and we’re shooting for mid-May … for Council to review the (consultants) and ask questions.”

Ideally, Wall said, city councilors will approve a consultant contract in June, and the 90-day Phase 1 will get started early this summer.

“In the first phase, we’ll talk to stakeholders and the community, and make sure we understand what they’re looking for and what our goals are for the lakes,” Wall said.

The consultants also will help draft a detailed work plan for Phase 2, which will research pollution discharging into the lakes and come up with short- and long-term goals to help improve the lakes’ water quality.

“To do this right, we need to manage the lakes long-term,” Wall said, “and we need to have a full management strategy that the community agrees with and that we stick with. We have a lot of momentum right now … so, hopefully, we’ll get buy-in from the community and get strategies that are forever.”

State will address upstream pollution in Lacamas Creek watershed

While the city is busy tackling pollution sources that are directly discharging into the city’s lakes, the state’s Department of Ecology will be looking for pollution sources upstream, in the 67-square-mile Lacamas Creek watershed.

Devan Rostorfer, a water quality specialist with Ecology, said it is important for people to understand that Lacamas Lake’s water quality issues may be connected to pollution sources as far as 18 miles away in Vancouver’s Orchards neighborhood, where the Lacamas Creek watershed begins and throughout the entire watershed.

“There is a connection between what’s happening upstream in the watershed to what’s happening downstream in the lake,” Rostorfer said. “So we will need action from people who don’t live near the lake … who may not even visit the lake.”

On April 16, Ecology staff met with officials from the city of Camas, Clark County, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Clark Conservation District and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to discuss the kickoff of Ecology’s Lacamas Creek Partnership, a project that will work with local, state, federal and tribal governments, as well as nonprofit watershed groups and private landowners, to develop and implement a water cleanup plan for the Lacamas Creek watershed.

“An important reason for focusing on Lacamas Creek and its tributaries is that they currently do not meet Washington State’s water quality standards for multiple parameters (including) bacteria, dissolved oxygen, pH and temperature,” Ecology staff told the local, state and federal partners during the April meeting. “This emphasizes the importance for prioritizing Lacamas Creek for water quality improvement.”

The watershed consists of 67 square miles of land that is primarily forested (35 percent) or used as pasture land or for agricultural purposes (25 percent). Less than 5 percent of the land is wetlands and 16 percent is developed and used for residential, commercial and industrial purposes. Only about one-fifth of the land is owned by the public. The rest is under private ownership.

Lacamas Creek has five major tributaries, including China Ditch, Dwyer Creek, Fifth Plain Creek, Matney Creek and Shanghai Creek, as well as smaller streams like Big Ditch and Spring Branch. Ecology’s study area will end where Lacamas Creek enters Lacamas Lake near the Camas Meadows Golf Course.

According to Ecology, “past studies determined that the majority of nutrient loading to Lacamas Lake that is associated with harmful algal blooms is coming from the Lacamas Creek watershed.” Focusing on cleaning up the watershed, Ecology staff told their partners on April 16, “may contribute to water quality improvements in Lacamas Lake.”

Molly Gleason, a water quality specialist with Ecology, gave an overview of Ecology’s plan for monitoring water quality and finding pollution sources within the watershed at the April 16 meeting.

“Only 22 percent of the watershed is public property,” Gleason said. “This means that implementation efforts for cleaning up the watershed will rely heavily on private landowners and encouraging voluntary implementation of best management practices in order for there to be long-term water quality improvement.”

There are three dairies operating within the watershed, including Laglers Dairy and Anderson Dairy. The third, Johnston Dairy near Lacamas Lake, is being decommissioned and has, according to Gleason’s report, “reached out to Ecology about properly decommissioning the manure lagoon to avoid mismanagement of the lagoon after the dairy shuts down and avoid potential discharge (into Lacamas Lake).”

The state has studied water quality in Lacamas Creek before — monitoring 30 sites for water quality in 2010 and 2011 — but did not complete the type of plan needed to find pollution sources and help find remedies that will lead to long-term solutions and improve the overall water quality of Lacamas Creek and its tributaries.

Rostorfer said Ecology will use the 2010-11 data to help understand historical water-quality conditions within the watershed, but will also collect water samples from June to October and monitor the water for Escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacteria found in the digestive systems of mammals and birds. The presence of E. coli could point to pollution by feces, either from agricultural sources or from septic systems.

“The new data will confirm if there are new issues,” Rostorfer said. “Most of the water quality concerns are in the ‘dry season,’ so it makes sense to prioritize (data collection) from June through October.”

Rostorfer added that, when she sees dry-season pollution in watersheds, it usually indicates to her that there is “a direct discharge of bacteria” possibly from a failing septic system or “manure directly discharging into the stream.”

Clark County will pick up water testing in the watershed in November, after Ecology’s “dry season” testing ends, providing an entire year’s worth of water-quality data.

Once the state and its partners have determined pollution sources in the watershed, they can begin to work with private landowners to help them find solutions that will lead to long-term water quality within the watershed. Ecology will work with Clark County’s Poop Smart Clark program to help connect landowners with financial or technical assistance to make sure their septic systems are working properly, for instance, and can help agricultural landowners find tools and incentives to improve their pastures and better manage livestock manure.

“It will take a lot of investment from everyone who lives in the watershed,” Rostorfer said.

The current timeline calls for water quality monitoring and data collection to begin in June and be completed in October. Ecology will complete a technical analysis of the data in August 2022, and complete a Draft Source Assessment Report identifying critical areas for water quality improvement by April 2023. The Water Cleanup Plan, with its focus on implementing remedies to watershed pollution sources, will begin in May 2023.

“We believe that, by 2023, we will have a clearer picture of water quality challenges (in the Lacamas Creek watershed),” Rostorfer said. “If there are things we can do over the next two years to help — if there are owners interested in improving their agricultural pastures or getting their septic systems fixed or planting trees on their property — that is great, but this will be a long-term project.”

For more information, including updates on water-quality monitoring within the watershed, visit the Lacamas Creek Partnership’s website at tinyurl.com/LacamasPartnership.