Retired U.S. Forest Service Hydrologist Dick Dyrland looks out onto the East Fork Lewis River in August 2018. Dyrland has been outspoken about concerns over the deterioration of the river, which recently has been the focus of a partnership formed specifically to improve conditions in the lower watershed with regard to bacteria and temperature issues.

Local, state and federal agencies alongside nonprofits and a few private entities are coming together in an effort to improve the water quality of the East Fork Lewis River watershed.

On Feb. 26 the East Fork Lewis River Partnership will have its first full meeting of the year, continuing work that began in earnest in August to address issues faced by the Columbia River tributary. At the meeting, Washington State Department of Ecology water quality specialist Devan Rostorfer will provide an update on what has been done so far as well as what this year’s work will entail.

The partnership is a result, in part, of a source assessment report published last year that analyzed types of degradation in the river. Rostorfer explained that water quality monitoring data was initially collected in 2005 and 2006, at which point it was determined that the watershed did not meet standards of temperature and certain bacteria levels.

Not much was done following that determination until 2018 when the new source assessment report was published.

Of the two issues determined in the report, Rostorfer said that bacteria — specifically fecal coliform bacteria — was a public health issue specifically for recreation on the waterways. The river’s temperature is important to track because fish species, salmonids specifically, need a particular range to flourish.

The assessment identified the lower watershed of the East Fork, from Paradise Point State Park upstream five miles, as in need of the most work, including McCormick, Breezy and Jenny creeks, Rostorfer explained. Other priorities were in Lockwood, Riley and Rock creeks.

Regarding the river’s issues, Rostorfer said there were multiple sources for the bacteria, be it wildlife, agriculture, stormwater systems or septic tanks. 

For temperature, hotter summers, less snowmelt, lower flows and a lack of tree cover contribute to warmer waters which can hurt fish populations. Rostorfer explained that using special photography the partnership was able to identify areas prime for tree planting to help get temperatures back in line with a healthy environment to fish. The ideal temperature range for salmonid spawning is about 54 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the report — data collected during the 2005-2006 research showed that all tested points in the river had averages several degrees above that temperature at some time during the testing. 

The partnership kicked off in August 2018 with a meeting in La Center with about four dozen people representing 28 organizations in attendance. One of the partnership’s goals is to implement a water cleanup plan which, apart from identifying causes and sources, would also figure out what technical and financial assistance was needed to improve the watershed. The partnership will also develop a public education and outreach plan as well as a long-term monitoring strategy.

Rostorfer said the cleanup plan would be a less-regulatory step compared to a “Total Maximum Daily Load” project that Ecology can take. She added that the water cleanup plan would be complete by the end of the year, hoping for a sooner date of mid-summer. 

The plan would develop a suite of projects benefiting water quality though Rostorfer noted that implementation of the plan would take some time — to have results on work such as tree planting it could be 10 years or more. 

Rostorfer noted that the Clark County Legacy Lands program and the Columbia Land Trust have their own partnership, through which roughly 2,000 acres have been acquired in the watershed to benefit habitat. Though having land come under public ownership allows for opportunities to plant more trees, Rostorfer said that getting private landowners on board would be important for the success of the recovery effort. 

Outside of the partnership’s own efforts, Rostorfer said Ecology relies on reports of potential pollution issues from landowners or nearby residents, anonymous or otherwise, to help with their work. The partnership’s current goal is reaching out to property owners in the lower watershed to offer resources to help improve the streams near or on their land.

“People live there because they love the river and they want to see it clean,” Rostorfer remarked.

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