Vancouver Lake and its associated lowlands are a vital regional asset for migratory birds and other wildlife. It is a major wintering area for waterfowl, with as many as 200,000 birds recorded here at one time. The area hosts the largest number of Sandhill Cranes west of the Cascade Mountains at Cranes Landing. The National Audubon Society has recognized the Vancouver Lake Lowlands as one of 75 Important Bird Areas in Washington, with Vancouver Audubon Society assigned as the steward to monitor its conservation.
Vancouver Lake Degraded By Human Actions
Historically, Vancouver Lake was connected to the Columbia River and handled overflow during the “spring freshet” when melting snow in the headwaters would cause river levels to rise. The annual flooding would refresh the lake and flush out sediments down Lake River. Historical accounts from the late 19th century describe Vancouver Lake as clear, up to 20 feet deep and containing sturgeon. Lewis and Clark complained in their journals that they could not sleep at night due to the noise of the masses of birds when they camped nearby in 1805.
When Bonneville Dam was completed in 1938, it was the first of more than 60 dams in the Columbia River watershed in the United States and Canada that now regulate river levels. Without annual flooding, water quality in Vancouver Lake began to degrade, leading to turbidity, increasingly shallow depths and a lack of aquatic plants such as wapato, which have diminished the variety of fish and wildlife using the lake.
Suburbanization of the lake’s watershed area also led to an increase in water pollution. Burnt Bridge Creek carried increased sediment and nutrient loading that caused eutrophication. Algal blooms have become a regular summer problem for recreational use of the lake.
In 1983, the flushing channel was built on the lake’s west side to bring cooler, cleaner Columbia River water into the lake to mimic the annual flooding that used to happen. The project included dredging to deepen the lake, which resulted in a dredge spoil island (Turtle Island) in the north end of the lake. Nutrient concentrations in the lake declined, but high sediment loads are still a problem and the lake still experiences water-quality problems.
Friends of Vancouver Lake Formed To Address Problems
In 2017, people noticed expanding Eurasian watermilfoil in the lake. This invasive species forms thick mats in shallow areas of a lake, quickly growing and spreading to block sunlight, killing off native aquatic plants that fish and other underwater species rely on for food and shelter. It adversely affected rowing and sailing.
The Friends of Vancouver Lake formed to advocate for local and state agencies to assess the Eurasian watermilfoil infestation and obtain permits to treat the invasive species with herbicides. Vancouver Lake and the flushing channel were treated in 2020. Post-treatment surveys several weeks later showed no trace of Eurasian watermilfoil.
This year, the Friends of Vancouver Lake have hired contractors to remove carp from the lake. Carp, an introduced fish species from Asia, feed on the lake bottom, keeping the water turbid. The Friends hope removal of a large portion of the carp population at the lake will cut down on regular toxic algae blooms. The Friends plan to have the contractors return intermittently over the next three to five years to continue carp removal.
They also convinced the Legislature to appropriate funding in the state’s operating budget for a hydrology study to form the basis for a long-term plan to improve Vancouver Lake’s water quality.
These actions benefit birds and we support them.
Economic Development Plans Would Harm Bird Habitats
Unfortunately, the Friends have not stopped with improving Vancouver Lake’s water quality. They also commissioned studies of the current economic impacts of sailing, rowing, and paddling events at the lake.
The outcome is a “concept vision plan” with improvements to enhance the lake’s recreational appeal and economic development to turn Vancouver Lake into a major destination for competitive rowing and sailing in the Pacific Northwest.
“A broader vision for Vancouver Lake area development could involve not only enhancement of existing and new public recreation/sport opportunities, but also address the potential for other complementary private development – as with marina, dining, lodging, high wage tech-campus, service-retail, residential and mixed use development.” ~E. D. Hovee & Company, LLC
That economic development would include 300 acres of residential mixed-use single and multi-family residences and light commercial development on the southeast shore where LaFrambois Road currently accesses the lake. The development would include high end homes with lakeside views, marinas and viewing areas to watch competitive rowing and sailing events. An additional 85 acres would have high tech offices and commercial development such as restaurants and hotels. That area currently is covered with riparian forest, wetlands and farm lands.
The plan would widen the flushing channel to 1,000 feet across and line it with 65 acres of offices and commercial developments and a marina on the south bank.
The plan would convert habitat on the south shore of the lake into an arboretum of non-native plants, lawns and manicured gardens. The south shore also would have a hotel, recreation center, aquatic center and a campground.
Dredge spoils would create a peninsula in front of the Vancouver Lake Regional Park blocking the view of the lake and covered with trails. Turtle Island, which is used as a night roost by Sandhill Cranes, would be reduced in size by 50 percent and turned into a boat-in campground. The plan also would create eight miles of additional beach on the lake shore and 30 miles of trails, including around and across wetlands and through riparian forests.
None of these developments would benefit birds. Indeed, all the development and human activity would drive birds away. If this plan was implemented, Vancouver Lake would no longer be an Important Bird Area.
As the Friends of Vancouver Lake seek local political support for their vision of economic development, we must remain vigilant to speak up and protect the wildlife values of Vancouver Lake.