SOAP LAKE — On Monday, Soap Lake’s water level was the lowest it has been — at 1070.08 feet — since the United States Geological Survey started recording the lake’s water level in 1936, according to data from the USGS website.
Deputy Field Office Manager of the Ephrata Field Office of the United States Bureau of Reclamation, Clyde Lay, said that there are several factors at work in Soap Lake’s water level.
“We’re actually in the 5th or 6th year of a drought in the Columbia Basin,” Lay said. “A lot of the farmers and stuff around here, they always get a full allotment of water. So the general population never necessarily feels the impacts of drought in the area, but the small lakes that are fed primarily through precipitation and runoff, like Soap Lake, they really reflect that drought.”
Lay said that in the summer the lake will naturally have a lower water level, but that there is more to the low level than just the time of year.
“If you look at the gage data on Soap Lake, you’ll see that it’s just been a steady decline in elevation of the lake throughout the summer as that water evaporates,” Lay said. “There’s no more water coming in from rainfall and runoff events.”
Lay said that in the 1950s the Bureau of Reclamation allowed groundwater to seep into Soap Lake for irrigation purposes, which led to the lake’s highest recorded water level of 1079.2 feet.
“It actually started to flood Soap Lake, and as part of that, it also reduces that unique water chemistry that’s in Soap Lake, so the Bureau of Reclamation and the irrigation districts built some interceptor wells to keep that artificial water that was migrating towards the lake away from the lake to protect its unique water quality,” Lay said. “As a result, it tied the lake back to its natural, normal, precipitation-driven, rise and fall…in order to protect that unique water chemistry, and to protect the town of Soap Lake from flooding, we eliminated that artificial source of water.”
The Bureau still uses these interceptor wells today, keeping fresh water from artificially propping up the water level.
“Soap Lake is a very unique water body in that it doesn’t have an outlet,” Lay said. “So any water that gets into it, the only way it can get out is through evaporation, and when water evaporates it leaves the minerals behind…that evaporation cycle is just making that lake more and more alkaline.”
Lay said that the flooding issue and the mineralization of the lake are the reasons why the Bureau cannot artificially prop up the lake’s water level.
“That’s kind of the catch-22. If you want to have that unique water chemistry, then you really can’t artificially prop up the lake volume, as you’ll dilute it out,” Lay said. “So it really is a decision and a choice between a unique water chemistry situation and artificially propping up the lake.”
President of the Soap Lake Conservancy, Judith Gorman said that the Outstanding Resource Water status, which the conservancy applied for, is an important step in being able to encourage a higher water level.
“And it is now within this Earth climate change crisis. It indeed needs to be discussed at the table with a crisis mentality,” said Gorman in a message to the Columbia Basin Herald.
However, the conservancy’s application for Outstanding Resource Water status for Soap Lake would also significantly limit any dilution of the lake in order to protect its unique mineralization, therefore limiting the ability to artificially prop up the lake.
Lay said there are people on both sides of the fence regarding the dilemma, but that the nomination for Outstanding Resource Water status is some indication of what will most likely happen with Soap Lake
“It’s going through that process, and the Department of Ecology is recognizing the unique water chemistry of the lake,” Lay said. “As a result, I think that’s sort of pointing the community at large into the direction that the water chemistry is more important than the volume of the lake.”