Lacamas Watershed Council keeps eye on lakes

Citizen-led nonprofit's weekly water testing scans for signs of toxic algal blooms

A Lacamas Watershed Council volunteer trains on a microscope inside the Lacamas Lake Lodge during the Watershed Council's spring 2022 volunteer training. (photo courtesy of the Lacamas Watershed Council)

The small group of dedicated Lacamas Watershed Council volunteers heads to Lacamas Lake every Thursday, rain or shine.

They gather water samples near the shores of Camas’ “crown jewel,” and bring them home to inspect under a microscope. They check the water’s temperature. They check its pH balance and, most importantly, they test for the presence of harmful cyanobacteria — also known as blue-green algae — that can sicken humans and animals that come into contact with toxic algal blooms.

“The volunteers are committed to doing a good, thorough, accurate job,” Terry Waters, lead water-testing volunteer coordinator for the Lacamas Watershed Council, told members of the Camas City Council during the Council’s Nov. 21 workshop. “It’s a tedious, tedious job. They count each (cyanobacteria) on their slide to determine if it’s elevated or not.”

If Lacamas Lake or the nearby Round Lake have high enough levels of the toxic blue-green algae, the Lacamas Watershed Council volunteers will alert Clark County Public Health staff, who then conduct more extensive tests to determine if they should post a warning alerting the public to the danger lurking in the lake. The Lacamas Watershed Council volunteers also alert the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s phytoplankton monitoring network, a community-based volunteer network that monitors the nation’s waterways for phytoplankton (including cyanobacteria) that can cause harmful algal blooms.

Locally, the citizen-led nonprofit Lacamas Watershed Council, which includes five board members, 11 water-testing volunteers and around 100 people who have signed up to receive the group’s monthly newsletter, is dedicated to working with the city of Camas and other strategic partners to ensure the long-term health of not just Lacamas Lake but also the nearby Round and Fallen Leaf lakes.

Camas resident Judit Lorincz founded the nonprofit Lacamas Watershed Council in 2020.

Lorincz, now the watershed council’s executive director, understands all too well the dangers associated with the lake’s frequent algal blooms. In 2019, after taking her then 8-year-old daughter to the annual Lacamas Lake Cleanup event — where the mother-daughter team spent hours wading through a muddy section of the lowered lake with other cleanup volunteers, pulling trash from the lakebed — Lorincz and her child both fell ill with symptoms such as high fever, respiratory issues and “horrible stomach cramps” that lasted 24 hours.

“It felt like I’d been poisoned,” Lorincz told The Post-Record in 2020. “I was sweaty and weak. It felt like someone had just sucked all of my energy out of me.”

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.

“I saw the blue-green algae warnings, but had no idea this would happen to me,” Lorincz said.

The experience set her on a quest to help heal the lake and prevent others from suffering the toxic effects of the harmful blue-green algae.

While the citizen-led Lacamas Watershed Council was getting off the ground, city and state officials were pulling together a coordinated effort to figure out what is causing the toxic algal blooms in Camas’ lakes.

The state is concentrating its efforts on the Lacamas Creek Watershed, which flows into Lacamas Lake. The city’s consultants are testing the lakes’ water for various chemicals and nutrients, and the Lacamas Watershed Council is focused on counting the cyanobacteria and alerting the county to possible algal blooms.

The groups complement one another, Lorincz told the city council members last month.

“The future will depend on a lot of collaboration,” she said. “For now, we trying to keep an eye on the waters, and continuing what we’ve been doing — working with the city and county to … try and fill the gaps that are out there.”

Lorincz said she did not expect the group to become a 501 c3 nonprofit so soon, but that “COVID and our unique situation pushed us a little bit faster than I expected.”

The nonprofit status does open the group up to grant possibilities. In fact, the Lacamas Watershed Council received a $1,000 grant from the Camas-Washougal Community Chest in 2022, which helped pay for water-testing equipment as well as the group’s spring volunteer training at the Lacamas Lake Lodge.

Now, the group’s board of directors is hoping to expand the Council’s operations. They are seeking more board members — “one of the main requirements is a passion for the lakes and watershed, but another big one is to have enough time,” Lorincz said of the group’s qualifications for new board members.

The group is seeking funding sources to help buy more water-testing equipment and conduct future volunteer training workshops. And they would love to someday buy a boat to access other areas of Lacamas Lake, Lorincz said.

“Every single cent (we have) goes toward equipment and training,” Lorincz said. “We are a purely volunteer organization. We have no executive director. That would be nice, but it is not in our near future.”

Instead, Lorincz said, the group’s leaders hope local lake enthusiasts with special skills — people who might have experience grant-writing, running a nonprofit, website development, social media, researching or organizing documents — might be willing to lend their skills to the nonprofit watershed group.

“We also are grateful for donations,” Lorincz said. “If someone can donate $20 or $50 or $200 … those add up, and then we can go ahead and buy more microscopes and more slides.”

Having more volunteer power and more equipment would mean the group could continue to monitor the cyanobacteria in Lacamas and Round lakes; add Fallen Leaf Lake to the mix; begin upstream and mid-lake testing as well as testing for invertebrates; find more funding sources; and create a quality assurance project plan for Lacamas watershed monitoring.

More money and more people also would help ensure the group is able to help protect Camas’ lakes far into the future.

During the city council’s workshop on Nov. 21, Camas Mayor Steve Hogan and the city’s public works director, Steve Wall, both pointed out the importance of the Lacamas Watershed Council’s work.

“An important piece we need to remember is that there have been other efforts in the past to test the (lake) water and improve water quality,” Wall said. “There was work done that made progress, but then there was a gap. Now, it’s been 18 to 20 years between the last effort and where we are now. (The watershed council) plays a role in keeping us all on task and (urges us to) not forget about the lakes.”

The mayor agreed.

“I believe a nonprofit group like this is critical for us to move ahead on repairing the damage 137 years has done (to Lacamas and Round lakes) with three dams on the lake system,” Hogan said.

The city will need partnerships, including those with citizen-led groups like the Lacamas Watershed Council to help cleanup the lakes and protect the water into the future, Hogan added.

“It’s not just our problem, it’s the whole community, county and state’s problem,” Hogan said. “When we get data in the next 12 months — and beyond — we should be asking other agencies to pitch in to resolve the issues on that lake. There will be some compromises we will have to make. Some of the uses we have on that lake may be causing harm, and they may have to be dealt with, and this (city council) may be the ones who have to pull the trigger on that.”

Asked to reflect on her journey to build the watershed council, Lorincz said the most surprising thing has been the group’s “ripple effect.”

“It took us two years to get to where we are now, which is no small feat, and it all started out with a citizen reaching out to their ward representative with a concern,” she said, referring to the call she placed to Camas Mayor Steve Hogan — then a Camas City Council member — in 2020. “Now, we have a 501 C3 nonprofit, a five-member Board, a successful grant application … and a vibrant volunteer program.”

Even more fulfilling is the fact that the lakes’ water quality is now on the minds of so many throughout Camas and the surrounding area, Lorincz said.

“The topic of clean lakes is still on the city council’s agenda. A lake management plan is in the making,” she said. “And now, due to the momentum and behind-the-scenes effort and push, other organizations are also benefiting from the county’s attention by receiving money to support a cleaner watershed.”

“Never underestimate the ripple effect is what I’ve learned from this,” Lorincz said.

To learn more about the watershed council and to sign up for the group’s monthly newsletter, visit lacamaswatershed.org. To inquire about becoming a council board member or contributing needed website-building, social media, grant-writing or nonprofit organizational skills to the group’s cadre of volunteers, email camaslakes@gmail.com or call 360-818-4470.