Clark County residents concerned over the quality of the East Fork Lewis River had their first chance to ask questions last week about the efforts of several agencies addressing temperature and bacteria issues in the river and its tributaries.
Dozens of residents packed the relatively small La Center Grange building June 3 to hear from officials from a number of agencies that have joined forces to address issues on the East Fork, detailed in a recent report by the Washington State Department of Ecology.
The report, released last year, showed that the river and its tributaries had elevated temperatures, which hurt fish such as salmon, and elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which is worrisome for public health.
“One of the questions people have is, is (the river) clean? And that’s a hard question to answer,” Shawn Ultican, a pollution specialist for Ecology, said near the start of the meeting.
The report showed that elevated temperatures occurred in places over the course of the main stem and tributary creeks, while elevated bacteria levels were in Jenny, McCormick, Riley, Lockwood, Rock and Yacolt creeks but not the East Fork proper.
Ultican said restoring shade to parts of the river would address temperature issues. The report showed a “shade deficit” of more than 25 percent along nearly the entire East Fork main stem, representing current shade compared to the potential for the riverbank environment.
Regarding bacteria levels, Ultican said Ecology had been going door-to-door to people living in the watershed to get suggestions about issues to address as well as to give information regarding septic system maintenance and other things that can affect water quality, such as pets and livestock in the water.
Ecology was the lead agency of the East Fork Lewis River Partnership which formed last year as a response to the report. Other agencies who had representatives speak at the meeting included Clark County Public Works Clean Water Division, Clark County Public Health, Clark Conservation District, the Watershed Alliance of Southwest Washington, Washington State University Clark County Extension and La Center Public Works.
Several of the agencies’ officials highlighted programs and opportunities for residents to do their part in improving the water quality, including tree planting programs, septic system consultation and inspection, and pollution reporting.
Many of the questions were beyond the scope of the officials gathered, as residents raised concerns over the effect of surface mining activity in the area on the river.
Richard Dyrland, a retired U.S. Forest Service Hydrologist and Friends of the East Fork Lewis River President, asked about agencies’ research into sediment buildup’s effect on river temperature. Jennifer Riedmayer, a pollution specialist for Ecology, said her department’s current focus wasn’t on sedimentation but pointed to research by another group, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, that had a workgroup which was looking into those and other impacts on temperature.
Devan Rostorfer, a water quality specialist for Ecology and the chief organizer from the department for the partnership, acknowledged that the analysis up to this point has been almost entirely on shade deficits with regard to temperature, while looking at the impacts of historical gravel mining in the area wasn’t looked at.
“That’s what our programs can pay for and our partners … that’s the kind of work they can do,” Rostorfer said. Several residents at the meeting had concerns over the effects the Daybreak gravel mine along the East Fork bank had on water quality.
Rostorfer mentioned there was a Ridgefield Pits technical advisory committee with both herself and representation from the estuary partnership, and they looking at restoring a two-mile stretch of the river near the Daybreak mine.
Residents raised concerns over the notification about water issues, asking about the lack of signs indicating the elevated bacteria levels.
Ultican reiterated that the main stem of the East Fork did not have those elevated levels, adding that just because they were elevated did not put them at a level where they were an official public health concern.
“The bacteria counts have not been high enough to warrant a public health advisory,” Ultican said.
Sean Hawes, with Clark County Public Health, said that the county only monitors bacteria counts at designated public swim beaches such as those at Klineline Pond and Battle Ground Lake.
The meeting served as a way to generate motion on the side of residents — whereas the agencies a part of the river partnership had been devising their own efforts and outreach, now property owners were encouraged to do their part.
“I think our biggest takeaway of this meeting .... is to get citizens involved, because we all live downstream,” Riedmayer said.
“There are things that we can do currently to improve water quality,” Riedmayer said. “We know that historically there were things before that happened that we didn’t regulate, it occurred, and there are things that we weren’t monitoring, we weren’t tracking.”
“But right now, we are,” Riedmayer added, adding that working with landowners was the current priority.