Are We Losing Liberty? Below The Surface Of This Picturesque Valley Lake Is A Growing Water Quality Problem

THURSDAY, OCT. 9, 1997

Stand at the edge of Liberty Lake on a summer day and you just might spot an osprey swooping down to catch its meal, or see happy kids splashing and squealing.

It wasn’t always that way.

Back in 1973, a slimy two-inch-thick blanket of blue-green algae covered the 800-acre lake.

“You could almost walk on it,” said William Funk, director of the Water Research Center at Washington State University.

In fact, people did. The wind blew tons of the scummy material up onto the lakeshore.

It was an ugly situation.

Ongoing efforts since then to the clean up the fragile, softwater lake, Funk said, have been extensive and successful. Just stand on the shore and admire the sparkling blue water.

But don’t look too close. Just below the surface, algae is beginning to amass. If you look close, you can see the tiny green dots suspended throughout the lake.

For years, efforts by residents and the Liberty Lake Sewer District have stopped pollution and algae from overriding the shallow body of water.

But it’s no longer enough. Unless new measures are taken, said Funk, the lake is at risk of slipping back into blooms and scum.

Liberty Lake has been giving hints of a problem for several years, said Funk, who has studied the lake for three decades. The problem hasn’t been particularly bad this year, but in 1992, 1995 and 1996, moderate algae blooms spotted portions of the lake with green blotches.

“It looked like someone flew over the lake and dropped green blobs of paint all over it,” said Frank Boyle, who has spent 17 years watching the Liberty Lake restoration from his back yard. As a sewer district commissioner, he’s now responsible for enforcing the rules that protect the lake from stormwater runoff. He keeps very busy, working with homeowners and developers.

“People are drawn to lakes. There’s a kinship there,” said Funk. Unfortunately, when they build roads and houses, the result can be erosion, stormwater runoff and lake pollution.

But humans are only part of the problem at Liberty Lake, said Funk. Sea gull droppings, heavy snow melts and silt that blocks a drainage canal have also contributed to the nutrient buildup and algae growth.

Funk began regular water testing at Liberty Lake in the 1960s. Back then, the WSU researcher found the same problem he sees now: high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. These nutrients are essential to aquatic plants, but at high levels, they lead to excessive algae growth. They reach high levels faster in a warm, shallow lake such as Liberty.

A partial solution came in 1973, when residents voted to form a sewer district. But algae blooms continued because pollution continued.

Sewer district officials knew they needed to reduce runoff into the lake. They created strict pollution-control regulations and denied water and sewer service to developers who didn’t follow them.

But now, Funk said, more is needed.

One of the most important tasks will be to remove the thick silt that clogs the lake’s outlet channel. A blocked outlet channel leads to high water levels, especially in years with heavy snowfall, such as 1997.

This causes lakewater to flush over the dike, mixing with nutrient-rich water in the marsh. The water then flushes back into the lake, bringing nitrogen and phosphorus with it.

But with enough effort, Liberty Lake can overcome its problems, Funk said.

The Liberty Lake Sewer District will spend this winter studying the problem and deciding the best method for clearing the outlet. The project will cost at least $300,000, sewer district officials said. They’re looking for funding sources and hope to complete the project by next spring.

The district also needs to deal with lingering pockets of pollution, such as the Alpine Shores subdivison, Boyle said. The development is one of a handful that drains its nutrient-rich stormwater directly into Liberty Lake. Boyle hopes to work with residents to reach a solution as soon as possible.

Several areas lack adequate swales scooped-out areas of land that collect water during storms. The district will help homeowners build them, preventing runoff from ending up in the lake, Boyle said.

Early next year, the sewer district will start setting aside money to help homeowners upgrade their landscaping so it will better prevent runoff. It will also start distributing a 12-minute video about preventing stormwater pollution. Sewer officials hope it will help homeowners to do their part to protect the lake.

The district continues to require developers to build swales and use straw and silt fences to prevent their construction runoff from polluting the lake.

Neither Funk nor sewer district manager Lee Mellish believes new development will threaten the lake, as long as the rules are strictly enforced.

“Most new development is north of the lake, outside the watershed,” Mellish said. “It doesn’t drain back into the lake.”

Funk hopes the new efforts, along with the on-going rules, will be enough to nudge Liberty Lake back into the healthy zone.

He never again wants to visit the lake on a sunny July day - as he did 30 years ago - and see just three people using it.

Back then, parents were afraid to let children play in the lake, he said.

“We live in a special place,” Boyle said. “We have to take care of it.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

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