Threat of lawsuit over Lacamas Lake biofilter temporarily shuts down city’s Lacamas Creek Watershed Committee

Camas resident names city, Lacamas Shores homeowners association in 60-day notice to file suit under federal Clean Water Act

Threats of a lawsuit have put a damper on the Lacamas Creek Watershed Committee, an ad hoc group created in 2020 to investigate and advise the city of Camas on water quality topics related to the Lacamas Creek Watershed and the city’s Lacamas, Round and Fallen Leaf lakes.

City leaders say they have temporarily halted the committee’s activities after receiving notice last week that a citizen intends to sue the city, as well as the Lacamas Shores Homeowners Association (HOA) over what he contends is a failure to maintain a biofilter on the shores of Lacamas Lake.

In a statement released Tuesday, Aug. 24, Camas Communications Director Bryan Rachal said Steven D. Bang, a resident of Camas’ Lacamas Shores subdivision, had served the city, as well as the Lacamas Shores HOA and members of the ad hoc watershed advisory committee, a 60-day notice that he intends to file a suit under the federal Clean Water Act.

“The city understands the magnitude of such a lawsuit and intends to pursue all available avenues to defend the claim,” Rachel stated in the news release.

The city has retained legal counsel from Seattle-based Stoel Rives attorneys, including Beth Ginsberg, who has litigated environmental cases for more than 35 years; Jason Morgan, an attorney with extensive litigation experience involving the Clean Water Act; and Veronica Keithley, who has defended several clients in federal citizens suits involving the Clean Water Act.

In his 60-day notice of intent to file a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, Bang contends the Lacamas Shores HOA and the city have violated federal law “by discharging pollutants from the Lacamas Shores biofilter treatment facility … into Lacamas Lake and its adjoining wetlands without a discharge permit … since at least Sept. 23, 2020.”

The notice contends the HOA’s biofilter “was initially properly maintained and effectively removed nutrients and solids from stormwater runoff,” but subsequently “fell into disrepair.”

“Specifically, the ‘filter’ component of the biofilter — namely, the grasses and aquatic plants that sequester pollutants — has not been maintained because the HOA has not conducted the required management and harvesting of vegetation,” the notice states. “High-filtering, tightly knit and easily removable grasses have been crowded out by tree shadow, which prevents vegetation and contaminant removal. Leaves and dead plants in the biofilter litter the ground every year, discharging pollutants, including phosphates and nitrogen, into the natural forested wetlands and Lacamas Lake.

Bang contends the city and the HOA “have been on notice of these violations for years,” with the HOA allegedly approaching the city in 2016 about the need to maintain the biofilter.

“The city indicated additional permits would be needed to maintain the biofilter, but the HOA did not pursue such permits or conduct the maintenance,” Bang alleges in his notice to sue. “The biofilter continued to deteriorate and in 2018, the HOA’s environmental consultant notified the HOA that the bubbler systems leading to the biofilter appeared to be failing such that untreated stormwater was being discharged directly to the lake in violation of permit conditions.”

The city did conduct tests on the discharge in 2019 and 2020, Bang states, “which confirmed the biofilter appeared to be failing and adding pollutants to Lacamas Lake.”

“Despite this notice and knowledge about the biofilter’s pollutant discharges, the HOA and the city have failed to cease these illegal discharges or seek a Clean Water Act permit to authorize them,” Bang states in the notice to sue. “While the (Washington) Department of Ecology issued a letter supporting the city’s position that the biofilter should not be maintained, this does not absolve the HOA or the city from these Clean Water Act violations.”

In late 2020, after a year of near-constant toxic algal blooms in Lacamas and Round lakes, the Camas City Council took steps to find long-term solutions to the lakes’ environmental problems. In November 2020, the council voted to form a Lacamas Creek Watershed Committee to investigate and advise the city on water quality topics related to the Lacamas Creek watershed and approved spending up to $300,000 — funded by the city’s stormwater utility fund and available 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.

The city hired consultants in the spring of 2021, and got started on the first phase of the lake management plan in mid-June. City staff have said they expected the first phase of that lake management plan to wrap up in mid-September. The second part of the city’s efforts would include investigation into possible pollution sources entering Lacamas and Round lakes, including, presumably, the Lacamas Shores biofilter.

Earlier this month, during a Camas City Council workshop, the city’s consultant, Rob Annear, with Geosyntec Consultants, briefed council members on some of the things consultants and city staff have already learned during the first phase of the lake management plan.

“Lacamas Creek accounted for the majority of phosphorus inflows to Lacamas and Round lakes in the 1980s,” Annear said. “We have to check to see if this is still true. Reducing phosphorus loading to the creek from the watershed will be necessary to reduce the occurrence of algal blooms.”

Since there have been no “serious” studies on the lakes’ water quality since the mid-2000s, Annear added, “it is important to determine the sources coming into and out of the lake … so we know where to focus our efforts in the future.”

Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall said city staff and consultants wanted to base their studies on scientific research.

“The idea wasn’t to just jump in and make assumptions about what we think may or may not work,” Wall told city officials on Aug. 2. “We want to base this on the science. We have to figure out what’s going on (with the lakes’ water quality) and what the current conditions are.”

With the help of outside consultants from Geosyntec Consultants, MacKay Sposito and JLA Public Involvement, the city has been reaching out to stakeholders to better understand the community’s goals for the Camas lakes, which have recently been plagued by toxic algal outbreaks harmful to humans and pets, find more grant funding opportunities, pour over the water quality research conducted on the lakes since the mid-1980s and look for short-term fixes the city might be able to implement sooner rather than later to help improve the lakes’ water quality.

The state’s Department of Ecology also is involved in the efforts to ensure the long-term environmental health of Camas’ lakes, and is currently undertaking a 3-year project that will search for pollution sources upstream from the lakes, in the 67-square-mile Lacamas Creek watershed.

Devan Rostorfer, a water quality specialist with Ecology, told the Post-Record earlier this year that 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.”

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 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.”

City officials and staff in Camas have said the lakes’ problems, including those involving toxic algae, are related to more than just one biofilter.

“The environmental condition of Lacamas Lake includes more than a singular source point, and any attempt at a comprehensive resolution by necessity would involve the input of a number of parties and jurisdictions,” Rachel stated in the news release regarding Bang’s intent to sue the city. “As part of a good faith effort to facilitate these discussions, the city established the Lacamas Creek Watershed Committee in 2021 to serve as an ad hoc advisory committee to the Camas City Council ‘with the purpose of advising on lake water quality issues and strategies, and to provide a structure for a partnership with, and accountability to, the community.'”

“The city recognizes the good work and efforts of the committee to date,” Rachel stated. “Unfortunately, because members of the committee have been named in threatened litigation against the city, the city will be suspending committee activities until further notice on the advice of legal counsel.”

Rachel said Tuesday that, “due to the nature of (Bang’s) filing,” the city will no longer “be commenting or making statements related to the litigation, pending further developments.”