Camas residents urge city, HOA to settle lawsuit, restore area near Lacamas Lake

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Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record Susan Knilans, also known as the "Camas Bee Lady," checks for signs of living critters under a log in the Lacamas Shores biofilter area near Lacamas Lake in Camas on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

The Camas Bee Lady is wading into the muck, pulling a log from the mire, hunting for signs of bugs, snakes, frogs or, really, any living critter.

“Normally, you would see beetles here, lots of beetles,” Susan Knilans, also known affectionately as the “Camas Bee Lady,” says as she turns over another log. “But there’s nothing here. That’s not a good sign.”

Knilans has come to the marshy, overgrown area located between Camas’ lakeside Lacamas Shores housing development and Lacamas Lake to see for herself what happens when an area once considered a state-of-the-art biofilter spends at least two decades in a state of disrepair.

“When you see it from the Heritage Trail, it just looks like an abandoned wastewater slough,” Knilans said of the Lacamas Shores biofilter.

The biofilter is supposed to look more like a meadow than an overgrown wetlands choked out by alder trees, blackberry brambles and other invasive plant species.

“It’s just mind-boggling,” Knilans says. “There are huge mosquito pools and then, three feet away, it’s bone dry. I was looking for plants that should be there, but there was no watercress, hardly any horsetail, even the skunk cabbages were lying on their sides. This is supposed to be an area full of life, but it stinks … it smells like wastewater, and there’s nothing in there.”

Created in the 1980s as a condition of development, the Lacamas Shores biofilter was meant to filter phosphates and nitrogen from the housing development through a healthy mix of grasses, cattails and other easy-to-mow-down plants that would capture the toxins before they ever got close to the lake.

The city and state charged the Lacamas Shores Homeowners Association (HOA) with maintaining the biofilter and preventing the housing development from negatively impacting the water quality of the nearby Lacamas Lake.

The HOA kept up its end of the bargain for at least the first five years of the biofilter’s life, says Lacamas Shores resident Marie Tabata Callerame. After that, Callerame — who majored in biochemistry in college, eventually became an attorney, has fought for a cleaner, healthier environment since she was a young girl and is a founding member of the city’s Lacamas Watershed Council — isn’t sure what transpired behind the scenes of the HOA.

What she does know is this: water tests taken in September 2020 showed the biofilter is not only failing to remove phosphates and nitrogen from the development’s runoff but is actually putting more pollutants into Lacamas Lake than it takes in from the houses that make up Lacamas Shores.

“There are some good aquatic plants out there, but not enough light in the summer is getting through those trees to make a nice, grassy wetland to suck up all those nutrients,” Callerame says, adding that, for the biofilter to work correctly, the aquatic plants and grasses must absorb the offending nutrients — which can contribute to the lake’s chronic, toxic algae problems — and then mow those grasses down.

“If you leave them there, any toxins they sucked up will decay back into the soil,” Callerame explains. “This is 25 years of decay, so it’s actually making the water worse.”

Callerame and other concerned Lacamas Shores homeowners have urged the Lacamas Shores HOA to come up with a plan to fix the biofilter and have approached city of Camas officials during public meetings, urging the city leaders to step in and either force the HOA to come into compliance with its stormwater issues by fixing the biofilter or take the issue to the state’s Department of Ecology and have it push back on the HOA.

Callerame told the Post-Record in February 2021 that she realized fixing the Lacamas Shores biofilter wouldn’t remedy Lacamas Lake’s toxic algae and other pollution problems, but said she believed it would go a long way toward improving the situation.

“This is a quick, easy way to help stop the algae blooms,” Callerame said. “We’re not the biggest contributor of phosphorus (to Lacamas Lake), but we’re the only ones dumping where the algae blooms.”

Camas residents urge city, HOA to settle pending lawsuit, create ‘educational jewel’

In late August, Steve Bang, one of the Lacamas Shores homeowners who has been pushing his HOA to restore its biofilter and maintain its commitment to not pollute Lacamas Lake, filed an intent to file a lawsuit against the city of Camas and the Lacamas Shores HOA under the federal Clean Water Act.

Bang contends the HOA and 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 allowed the once groundbreaking biofilter to fall 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,” Bang states in his notice. “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.

When Camas resident Randal Friedman and his wife, Deborah Nagano, read about Bang’s Clean Water Act suit, the couple called their longtime friend Knilans to accompany them on a walk around the biofilter.

Friedman, a retired environmental official for the United States Navy, and Nagano, a retired real estate attorney, realized just how expensive a clean water lawsuit could be for the city of Camas.

“While we believe the HOA has the greatest legal exposure, we also believe that gathered documentation we’ve reviewed will show the city of Camas to be party to this biofilter issue, which could easily result in massive fines to the city,” the couple wrote in an appeal to Camas Mayor Ellen Burton.

Instead of paying expensive penalties if found to be in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, Friedman, Nagano and the couple’s longtime friend, Knilans, have proposed a different solution for the city — a settlement plan of sorts that would restore the biofilter to its natural state and provide an educational opportunity for the residents and children of Camas.

“By crafting a good, fair and effective settlement plan, the city can avoid the costs of a trial and potential penalties, which could cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” the residents wrote in their appeal to Burton. “The biofilter must be restored and, if necessary, rebuilt … We suggest that the settlement include, as mitigation and in lieu of civil penalties, an educational and natural restoration component … (and) an agreement to include in the restoration habitat for pollinators and other species comprising the base of the food chain that supports the overall ecosystem of Lacamas Lake.”

The Camas residents would like to see city officials and the HOA include educational components in any settlement reached over the biofilter, including “an outreach program to Camas residents advising them of alternative practices, such as avoidance of pesticides and herbicides … and an education component for use by (Camas’) outstanding schools and the public … (to) use the biofilter and restoration as a tool for learning about stormwater, its relationship to the environment and the overall relationship of the environment to our well-being.”

Knilans, who has been a vocal supporter of educating Camas youth and residents about the benefits of having pollinator-friendly habitats in suburban and urban areas, said she can envision the Lacamas Shores biofilter area as becoming a shining example, a “jewel” for other cleanup and restoration efforts along Lacamas Lake and the more than 60-square-mile watershed that feeds into the lake.

“There are many common areas in Lacamas Shores that would be perfect places for educational displays showing/telling what a wetland is, how a biofilter works, who lives there and photos showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ restoration images,” Knilans stated in the appeal to Burton.

Knilans envisions a monarch butterfly garden, food forests and educational components that might show Lacamas Shores residents and other Camasonians how pollinators work in conjunction with trees and plants to provide food for humans.

“The restoration of this biofilter is not going to clean Lacamas Lake. Fixing this doesn’t ‘fix’ the lake … but it will fix a mosquito-ridden, toxic, critter-killing mess. And it could present an alternative and show people what could be done on other parts of the lake,” Knilans says. “This place of stink, mosquitoes and poisons can be remade into a world of wonder, invitation and self-reflection.”

Susan Knilans shows an example of the limited "healthy plants" living in the Lacamas Shores biofilter on Friday, Sept.
Susan Knilans shows an example of the limited "healthy plants" living in the Lacamas Shores biofilter on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Photo
Camas residents Susan Knilans (left) and Marie Tabata Callerame (right) point out an example of a healthy strip of grasses and plants acting as a biofilter along the city of Camas' Heritage Trail, in between the Lacamas Shores housing development and Lacamas Lake on Friday, Sept.
Camas residents Susan Knilans (left) and Marie Tabata Callerame (right) point out an example of a healthy strip of grasses and plants acting as a biofilter along the city of Camas' Heritage Trail, in between the Lacamas Shores housing development and Lacamas Lake on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Photo