‘The lake is trying to kill itself’ Watershed Council asks Moses Lake to join Conservation District

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MOSES LAKE — Conservation groups dedicated to improving the waters of Moses Lake delivered a stark message to the city council Tuesday night: if something isn’t done to save the lake, things will only get worse.

“The lake is trying to kill itself,” said Harold Crose, associate supervisor for the Grant County Conservation District and chairman for the recently formed Moses Lake Watershed Council. “All lakes are trying to do this, and only with interaction and dedicated work can we curb that and stop that from happening.”

To do that, Crose came to Tuesday’s council meeting asking for the city to rejoin the conservation district, giving his organizations the authority to begin work on the lake.

The city council took no immediate action Tuesday night. If it voted to join the conservation district, all parcels of land in the city would be levied a $5 annual fee, the proceeds of which could only be used for local watershed conservation efforts, Crose said, though he warned that the group may need to ask for more money as projects commence.

“I wish I could point to one thing and tell you this is the way we fix it, but that isn’t the way it’s going to happen,” Crose said. “It’s going to take a system of activities that gets us back, it’s going to take a community that backs the system — and I’ll tell you now, it’s not going to be cheap.”

Moses Lake is a shallow, winding body of water surrounded by industry, residences and a variety of different forms of agriculture, each of which contributes in some way to lowering the water quality, Crose said.

But just mitigating human-caused pollution would not solve the problem, Crose added, as anthropogenic causes constitute only 30 percent of the problem. The rest of the pollution has built up over decades from naturally occurring, phosphorus-rich runoff from the waterways that feed into the lake, Crose said.

Natural issues with Moses Lake’s water quality have existed for as long as the city has shared the lake’s name. In a letter to the editor published by the Columbia Basin Herald in 1949, resident Laura Thomas wrote, “But of what real value is the lake to the town if its waters are so contaminated that there can be no swimming or water sports?”

In her letter, Thomas lamented the lack of action following reports from “the county sanitarian, Francis Horrell, that dangerous contamination exists in practically all of the lake water” from farm drainage and faulty septic tanks.

“But as yet no action has been taken, either by the county or by us, those who live here and would like to play in and along the lake, toward cleaning it up,” she wrote.

Attempts to address the issue did begin soon after, in 1963, Crose said, primarily using dilution as a solution. That method, still in use today, used relatively clear Columbia River water diverted through irrigation canals to clear the lake. But the effect of dilution is fleeting, Crose said, with the canals only sufficiently diluting the lake until July.

Extending the dilution throughout the summer isn’t an option, either, Crose said, because the priority of the Columbia Basin Irrigation District, which directs the water through the canals, is irrigation, not water quality in the lake.

“The primary function of the Bureau of Reclamation and irrigation districts is to deliver water to their landowners to irrigate,” Crose said. “They have no responsibility for dilution. They use the lake as a conveyance system to get water to the south district.”

That doesn’t mean that the irrigation districts would not be willing to work with conservation groups to send water through the lake at optimal times, but dilution won’t be able to provide a year-round solution, Crose said.

Crose came representing both the conservation district and the Moses Lake Watershed Council, a non-profit corporation which was positioning itself to take the lead on rehabilitation efforts for the lake on a regional scale, tackling issues throughout the watershed, which stretches from near Quincy to halfway to Spokane, Crose said.

After a call from state Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, and Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, a number of different stakeholder groups came together to form the watershed council, Crose said.

Those stakeholder groups include the Moses Lake Irrigation and Reclamation District, the state Department of Ecology, the Grant County Health District, the city of Moses Lake, the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Grant County Conservation District.

“If we fail in this effort, I guarantee that the DOE (Department of Ecology) is going to step in with a pretty heavy hand and they’re going to impose some pretty strict restrictions on a regulatory basis,” Crose said. “We don’t want that to happen. We want a grassroots solution to solve this problem.”

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.

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