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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Waves Of Use, Abuse Swamp County Lakes Waters Face Pollution, Crowding

The reason for Clear Lake’s name isn’t so obvious these days.

“The story goes, it was so clear, you could see the bottom in 20 to 30 feet of water,” said lake resident Jerry Pitts.

Now boaters can only see through about eight feet of water, he said.

There are worse pollution problems at Newman Lake. Eloika Lake is turning into a swamp thousands of years ahead of schedule. Some residents at Liberty Lake complain about the noise of boaters drawn to its clear water.

Pollution, silt, noise, forests of aquatic weeds and overcrowding are symptoms of a larger problem that is especially apparent on the lakes nearest the city:

Spokane is loving its lakes to death.

“I can’t think of any lake around here that isn’t suffering to some extent from man’s use and abuse,” said Ray Soltero, a biology professor and researcher from Eastern Washington University.

Not that there haven’t been successful projects to protect or restore lakes.

Sewers cleared the once-filthy waters in Liberty Lake and the Long Lake portion of the Spokane River, while an aerator did the same at Medical Lake. A soon-to-be-built sewage plant should prevent spills like the one that closed fishing on West Medical Lake in 1992.

Crews from Turnbull Wildlife Refuge restored a wetland at the south end of Clear Lake several years ago. And Spokane County’s 1990 ban on detergents containing phosphates was “a monumental move forward” for protecting all water, said Soltero.

But he and others expect that as Spokane County’s population grows, lakes will suffer from heavy use and development within their watersheds.

Recent agonizing over high taxes at Newman Lake illustrates the problem. On Tuesday, county commissioners reluctantly approved annual taxes in the lake’s flood-control district. The 1998 bills will be an average of 43 percent more expensive than those paid in 1997.

The average tax is $269 for the 773 parcels of land in the district. But 191 parcels are assessed at $500 or more, and some people own more than one parcel.

The owners of the lake’s struggling Sutton Bay Resort saw its assessment jump from $1,200 to $3,041.

“If we had to live on the (money earned at the) resort, we couldn’t afford to do it. It just about pays for itself every year,” said Bill Walters, a retired photographer whose wife’s family opened the resort more than a century ago.

County engineers say the increase is necessary to repair long-neglected dikes and continue a lake cleanup project. In addition to the local money, the state has contributed more than $1.5 million for the waterquality project since the early 1980s.

Commissioners are looking for ways to ease the tax burden - everything from expanding the district boundaries so more people share the cost to charging boaters who use the public launch.

But Commissioner Kate McCaslin thinks Newman Lake’s problems are so big, lake residents eventually will have to form an independent district and forgo the county’s help. Commissioners have too many other obligations to devote the time or money that will be needed, she said.

“We’re dealing with a lake that has changed from a summer-home area … to one that has a lot of development, used year around,” she said.

In addition to development, logging and farming also have contributed to the lake’s problems, scientists say. Residents who protested the tax noted that last year’s floods were worse than ever, the water isn’t getting any clearer, and silt on the lake bottom is getting deeper.

From her dock at the east end of the lake, “we can’t swim, fish or launch a boat now at all” because the water is so shallow, resident Tava Bonnell wrote in a letter to commissioners. Water there was 4 feet deep in the mid-1970s, she wrote.

Other residents suggest abandoning efforts to control floods, pump more oxygen into the water and chemically treat the lake to choke algae. Instead, the money should go toward dredging the silt and building sewers, they said.

Either of those projects would be exorbitantly expensive, said Tammie Williams, the county engineer assigned to Newman Lake.

There are subtle signs that current efforts to clear the water are working, Williams said. Yet, she compares Newman Lake to “an elderly patient in critical condition.

“We’ve got it hooked up to oxygen and medicines (like aluminum sulfate, which clears the water). And yet the poisons are still coming in.”

Here’s what’s happening at some other Spokane County lakes:

Eloika Lake

Used as a mill pond early this century, the lake bed is blanketed in silt that is deeper than the water in most places. By midsummer, Eurasian milfoil, an imported aquatic weed, covers all but a narrow channel, where the water is about 15 feet deep.

Residents hope to build a $400,000 dam at the lake outlet to raise the water level in summer and lower it in winter. That, they hope, would rob the plants of sunlight during the growing season, then expose them to killer frosts.

Soltero backs the plan but says it will only delay the lake’s death. Dredging would be better, but far more costly and complicated, he said.

Engineers for the county doubt the dam will do what residents hope. Commissioners, who will be briefed on the project Tuesday, have not yet decided whether to form a lake-management district to pay for the work.

Liberty Lake

Sewer construction and dredging ended the malodorous algae blooms that plagued the lake in the 1970s. But the same work spurred rapid development and new conflicts.

Some lake residents want the state to close or relocate its boat launch at the north end of the lake. They complain of traffic congestion, noise, and ill-mannered or dangerous boaters.

Others complain about neighbors and visitors who crank up their boats at first light on summer days. The boaters like to ski before they go to work, or while the lake is calm and uncongested.

Last year, some residents asked the county to limit the hours when power boats can be used. The county doesn’t have authority to impose such restrictions, said public works Director Dennis Scott.

Clear Lake

Like Newman, the lake suffers from what scientists call “nutrient loading.” It’s caused by runoff from yards, dirt roads and building sites. Agricultural runoff also contributes.

“You can still (swim), and it’s still fairly good fishing, but around the edges it’s mucky and murky” in the summer, said Pitts. “It’s not getting any better, it’s getting worse.”

Pitts and other residents have formed the Credence Clear Lake Revival Association to look for solutions.

Horseshoe Lake

Last year, a California man who owns 190 acres widened and paved what had been a Jeep trail leading to the remote, undeveloped lake. He plans to develop 21 building lots.

The deed for one of those lots will stipulate continued public use of a rough boat launch that historically has been used by fishermen, even though it’s on private land.

West Medical Lake

The popular fishing lake would nearly dry up if not for the discharge from two aging sewage treatment plants operated by the state Department of Social and Health Services. Six years ago, one of those plants spewed raw sewage into the lake on two occasions, forcing authorities to close fishing for most of the season. Boaters complained they couldn’t see bottom in 2 feet of water.

The state and the town of Medical Lake hope to open a $14 million replacement treatment plant by July 1999. It will continue to discharge into the lake, and should drastically cut chances for a repeat of the 1992 spills, said Doug Ross, the town’s public works director.

Williams Lake

Longtime resident Jack Fischer said he hasn’t yet noticed pollution problems at this deep lake that is cradled in rock. But he and his neighbors aren’t waiting for it to happen.

The community has formed a sewer district and applied for a $1.5 million federal loan to build an elaborate community drainfield. Fewer than 100 landowners would bear the burden of repaying the loan.

“I’m not interested in spending that much money, but I’m also not interested in contaminating the lake,” said Fischer. “If not for the lake, why be there?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map of area

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