After years of complaining about Devils Lake’s pea-green soup texture during long stretches of the year and weathering the withering verbal volleys of residential rebellion and condemnation, it appears that a way forward in solving the pea soup dilemma is at hand.
The Devils Lake Water Improvement District has finally hired a lake scientist who is described as one of the more formidable authorities on fixing sick lakes – especially the ones like Devil’s Lake that look like pea soup instead of sky blue waters with white fluffy cloud reflections in them, which people expect to see when they come to visit Lincoln City and the coast.
However, there are times of the year when those living around Devils Lake look out their windows and gasp in surprise when the lake is actually blue – even if it doesn’t have fluffy cloud reflections in it. But the district board is hoping to hear more of those gasps of infrequent exuberance in the future, if what they’ve decided to do, actually works.
And what they’ve decided to do is take the plunge – not into the lake – but in taking the first step to launch a more scientifically-based journey toward transforming Devil’s Lake from what some call a “human-slash-natural” dumping ground to a 650 acre rippling blue lake to swim in, sail on or just gaze upon. But first they have to get rid of some pretty foul stuff that still contaminates it – seepages from long-ago failed septic tanks that line the lake, polluted storm water, animal feces, herbicide and pesticide used around the lake, and high nutrient run-off from heavily logged timberlands way up the lake’s watershed in the coast range. It’s all been going on for so long that it’s a wonder to some, including scientists, that the lake isn’t pea-green year round.
World renown lake expert Dr. Alex Horne, Professor Emeritus of Ecological Engineering and Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, has been given the green light, by the district board, to formulate an engineering plan to turn Devil’s Lake into the natural beauty queen everyone wants it to be year round – rain or shine. The budget for developing the plan which was characterized as being an eclectic blend of 17 strategies that work very well, depending on how they’re mixed, has a cap of $100,000. The vote among the board members was unanimous, and not for want of some hard swallowing up and down the dais.
Dr.Horne, who is widely read and respected as a lake health research authority, has circled the globe fixing lakes and says although there are standard benchmarks to any healthy lake, those benchmarks vary widely due to all the ingredients that flow into lakes besides clear water. Hint: There’s no such thing as clear water. There’s always something in it. And among the stuff you don’t want in it is copious amounts of nitrates, ammonia, phosphates, iron, hydrogen-sulfide and the list goes on and on. Dr. Horne says, in addition to all the foregoing, Devil’s Lake gets a lot of organic debris from up-watershed logging clear-cuts, lots of wild and domestic animal waste, ground leached chemicals and one of the worst “nasties,” seepage from many, many, MANY septic tanks that are still in use around the lake most of which – estimated by some – to be simply passing human waste through, practically unfiltered, because they stopped working years ago.
It is an impassioned goal of the city and the board to get all those septic tanks removed and to provide city sewer to all those homes as soon as possible. Another hint: It make take a while.
The board and Dr. Horne are now officially in pursuit of many steps in the right direction. Dr. Horne says his preliminary analysis is that a major aeration project is a base-line must-do. He says the blue-green algae grows rapidly and lingers for what seems like forever due to low oxygen levels in the lake, which is quite shallow as lakes go. He says with the installation of two or three pump houses sending out compressed oxygen through long hoses to defusers at strategic areas around the lake it should do a lot to help bring Devil’s Lake back to health – which it probably hasn’t seen in well over 100 years what with all the logging, clearing for development and human waste finding its way into its formerly sky blue waters.
Horne added that his list of 17 strategies will be tapped beyond mere aeration because, he strongly hinted, no lake is that unsophisticated in its ailments – especially when it’s producing blue green algae in vast quantities. For one, he says there are thick layers of long deposited organic material on the lake bottom that is a huge consumer of oxygen as the never-ending process of decaying muck continues. He says aeration sprayers will be located on the bottom with clouds of bubbles rising up, oxygenating the water to help the lake “metabolize” all that stuff and gunk on the bottom. Dr. Horne never attempted to estimate how long that process might take. It very well might be ‘ongoing’ since the organics keep coming in upstream and from around the lake – as long as humans live around it.
So the process of rehabilitating Devil’s Lake has finally begun. Once a detailed engineering design is approved they can get on with installing the pump houses (they’ll be muffled to keep the noise inside and the quiet outside), laying out long air hoses connected to sturdy oxygen bubble makers – situated just a few inches off the lake bottom. Not only will these bubble-makers oxygenate the water to help the lake chemically process everything in it, they’ll create regular upwelling currents that will help impede the growth of blue-green algae. Dr. Horne says blue-green algae just hates moving water. It likes it stagnant.
District General Manager Paul Robertson reminded his board this is but the first step in a long journey to re-building what was once Devil’s Lake’s healthy eco-system. It took a long time to foul it, and it will take a long time to nurse it back to health – and then – to learn how to maintain a healthy balance – literally to build a human relationship with the lake. He said connecting every home around the lake to city sewer is an inescapable requirement. Others agree with him, including the city of Lincoln City which is now beginning to sewer a few streets over on the southwest shore along Voyage and Lake Streets.
Robertson says the next step is to get the aeration design approved and the construction underway. Other supplemental options may prove fruitful. Federal and state agencies, for a long time, have wanted something done about the perpetual poor water quality in Devil’s Lake, and for that, state and federal grants are expected to be forthcoming to help fund the project.
The journey of a billion clean water cups begins with a single bubble of oxygen.