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Sauvie Island lake pulls a disappearing act
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Sturgeon Lake doesn’t have sturgeon anymore.
They lived here back when the lake was still deep enough for water skiers and windsurfers to skim across its surface.
“It hasn’t been that kind of a playground for years,” said Martha Berndt, a Sauvie Island resident who lives on the one of the lake’s main tributaries.
In fact, the water body covering much of the island’s northern half is steadily disappearing. During the driest late summer days, most of Sturgeon Lake isn’t a lake at all. Much of its 3,000 acres becomes a mud flat.
If something doesn’t change soon, “the lake is going to continue to diminish, and diminish, and diminish,” said Dick Springer, manager of the West Multnomah County Soil & Water Conservation District.
Juvenile salmon that stop to rest here during their voyage to the ocean could join the sturgeon in abandoning Sauvie Island’s shrinking flood plain. So might the lake’s Pacific lamprey, followed by the 220 or more bird species that use it as a stop-over in their seasonal flights or as a year-round nesting ground.
“Sturgeon Lake is the linchpin for that whole system,” Springer said. “There are very few places like that in the world that have that kind of ecosystem.”
The wildlife will be staying if Springer and his team at the have anything to do with it. But first they must raise $1.6 million to halt the lake’s decline. At a time when money for public conservation projects is scarce, that goal is a lot easier said than done.
Sturgeon Lake’s problems began in 1941, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed 32-foot-high levees around the island’s southern 11,000 acres. The levees halted seasonal floods that used to turn Sauvie Island’s lowlands into temporary lakes when the Columbia River rose.
“They allowed the island to become agricultural,” said Tim Couch, district manager for the island’s drainage improvement company. “You can move a cow when the high water comes, but to farm, you need dry land.”
The levees also choked off tributaries that used to connect the lake to the Columbia River, leaving only the Gilbert River and Dairy Creek to provide the essential flushing flows that allow Sturgeon Lake to fill up when the tide comes in, and to drain again when the tide goes out.
Almost immediately, people began noticing a difference. The river’s tide was taking its usual three hours to come in. But, with only two viable drainage ways, the water took five hours to go back out.
Sediment in the water settled at the bottom, filling in Sturgeon Lake at a rate of one-tenth of an inch per year.
“There have been conversations about how to save the lake pretty much since the levees were installed,” said Scott Gall, a conservation district employee who monitors the lake’s water levels.
A dredging project in the 1980s increased Dairy Creek’s flow into the lake. But the major flood of 1996 piled sand at the creek’s mouth, blocking its connection to the Columbia.
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