Washougal botanist discusses Lacamas Lake water quality issues

Lake exceeds state water standards a dozen times in 2020. Toxic algae present more than in the past

Rodger Hauge taught science to elementary school teachers at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. He’s a botanist who retired in Washougal. He is one of many concerned citizens eager to have Lacamas Lake water quality improved, so it is safe for fish to live in, safe for swimming and boating, and has a healthy ecosystem.

For much of the past decade, citizens have observed toxic algae grow on Lacamas Lake water. They’ve observed dead fish too. Recently, the decline in water quality seems to be happening earlier in the year, and more often.

Washington State Department of Ecology reports Lacamas Lake exceeded state water quality standards 12 times this year for the toxin microcystin or Anatoxin-a. From Sept 2009 to Oct. 2020, there were 15 exceedances of microcystin, of which 11 occurred this year. There appears to have been no testing done in 2010, 2011, and 2013 through 2017.

Retired botanist and science teacher Rodger Hauge tests the PH of water in the Lacamas Shores biofilter. Solving water quality issues is a two-fold fix, adding oxygen to the lake water and stopping untreated storm water from entering the lake. Photo by John Ley
Retired botanist and science teacher Rodger Hauge tests the PH of water in the Lacamas Shores biofilter. Solving water quality issues is a two-fold fix, adding oxygen to the lake water and stopping untreated storm water from entering the lake. Photo by John Ley

For the better part of the past decade, there have been concerns that a failed biofilter at the Lacamas Shores subdivision on the south end of the lake is adding to the problem. Multiple Lacamas Shores homeowners have been fighting to get the homeowners association to fix it, or to have the city of Camas force the association to fix the biofilter.

Hauge was one of many concerned citizens neighbors asked to weigh in on the problem.

“The larger problem is if you walk that way down to Heritage Park, which is east of where we are, you have pipe after pipe after pipe,’’ Hauge said. “I count about five or six that are taking stormwater off the hill and dumping it right in the lake. If you drive along the other side, the same thing. When Camas put this whole thing together, they didn’t go through the process of collecting their storm water and disposing of it properly, they dumped it right into the industrial lake.

“The concept of a biofilter is to stop the water from flowing directly into a lake, into a stream, into whatever and have it soak through the ground and get into the aquifer. And in that process of soaking into the ground to the aquifer, it gets cleaned,” he said.

A properly functioning biofilter acts like a scrubber, removing all the phosphates and nitrates and chemicals from the water as it soaks into the ground and the aquifer. 

Hauge looked extensively at the Lacamas Shores biofilter. He agrees it is not working properly. 

“The idea of going in here initially, and simply putting in some spreader dams,’’ he said. “You could do with rocks and sandbags, putting in some spreader dams here that would take it and move the water out, and sheet-flowed instead of this. Because (what you have now), this is a direct line — it goes right to the creek, right to the lake.”

Hauge agreed that concern number one is to fix the biofilter so that it stops polluting. “That’s right,” he said.

It was an industrial lake until two years ago. “People upstream think it’s okay for their cows to walk in the creek,” Hauge said. “And others think we can put this development over here. And then you just run the water into the lake. That thinking has to stop. That mindset has to stop.

“But if you look at it right now, two years ago, they went from industrial to recreational. And you get the city fathers and the county talking it up.  And the Department of Ecology, they talk. They’re bureaucrats. They talk, they talk, and they talk. Enough talking — get the dang oxygenators out because I read this study in 2009, I think. But it’s in all the data we’ve been sharing. He came up with a recommendation and it had all the recommendations for cleaning this all up,  He says the only one that really has any bearing is to oxygenate it. So you go from this eutrophic lake to something more like a mesotrophic lake. Reduce the phosphate.”

Lacamas Lake is a highly eutrophic lake according to Hauge. A eutrophic condition is a term describing a situation where a water body has lost so much of its dissolved oxygen that normal aquatic life begins to die off. Eutrophic conditions form when a water body is “fed” too many nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen.

“We need to put in oxygenators, we need to put four or possibly five of them in here.  And completely change the water chemistry, change the biology,” he said. 

Hauge mentioned Medical Lake near Spokane. They put in three oxygenators roughly a decade ago to help change the water chemistry. Hauge thinks it might have cost $500,000 to $750,000 for three oxygenators. “In the grand scale of things, the cost is minimal,” he said.

Presently in the mayor’s proposed budget, Camas is considering spending $300,000 over the next two years to begin a study on how to fix the problem. They want to bring in county, state, and possible federal authorities.

Hauge believes there is a political element to the problem.

“You have the political thing — they want to develop the North Shore,’’ he said. “The politicians think of all the money this county will get, the city will get.  But see without handling their stormwater, it’s gonna get dumped in (the lake).”

Hauge has kayaked on the lake besides testing the water quality. He believes it is a stratified lake, meaning the lake will only support life in the upper 1 to 2 meters. At its deepest point, Lacamas Lake is about 65 feet deep.That is one reason you only have small fish in the lake — there’s not enough oxygen in the lower depths of the lake.

Hauge referenced Lake Coeur d’Alene where decades of industrial pollution are all sealed at the bottom of the lake. There was a proposal to dredge up the industrial pollutants that was stopped. 

“They wanted to dredge out the south end of the lake,” he said. “We said hell no, because it will poison the Columbia River.” The dredging would uncover the heavy metals and pollutants. “Right now it’s all sealed. And Coeur d’Alene is a beautiful lake. It’s sealed.”

To make Lacamas Lake healthy again, Hauge believes patience is a key. That means leaving the pollutants from our former industrial lake sealed on the bottom. “You’re not going to get it in two years, you’re not going to get it as a quick fix. It’s a 10-year project,” he said.

Hauge also stressed the need for four or five oxygenators to add oxygen to lake water and to stop stormwater from directly entering the lake without being properly treated.