Letter: Friends of Hicklin Lake respond to King County's cleanup plan

On August 18(and August 24 in print), the West Seattle Herald/White Center News ran a story called "King County says they’ll pilot a floating island at Hicklin Lake in White Center."

Dick Thurnau and Marcia Wollam with Friends of Hicklin Lake, an advocacy group promoting cleanup efforts for the polluted body of water, wrote the following letter in response to King County's plan to try out a single floating island (instead of the five recommended by Floating Islands International) to determine their effectiveness.

The original story can be found here.

Here is Thurnau and Wollam's response:

As advocates of Hicklin Lake for the past 20 years, we have reminded King County of the unsanitary waters in Hicklin Lake on many, many occasions. The County’s poor decisions 47 years ago created this adverse problem that has not been resolved. One concerning issue is the health effects this contaminated water can have on our children, students from the schools next door, people of our community visiting this facility, and plants and animals that call the lake their home. A second major concern is the continuing contamination of Puget Sound, from waters pumped out of Hicklin Lake and into Puget Sound.

Friends of Hicklin Lake uncovered new natural technology that utilizes a very old, time- tested biology. The new system is called Floating Islands. This system mimics a natural floating wetland, by using a man- made matrix or base made of recycled plastic bottles, formed into nonwoven mats, which is then planted with native vegetation via predrilled holes. Roots from the plants enter the water providing a large surface area where microbes attach to the plant roots and matrix, and begin consuming contaminates from the water. Floating Islands provide shade and food for fish, nesting for birds and the vegetation takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.

One company, Floating Islands International, has over 4,000 islands launched around the world as of 2010, treating water problems resulting from many different scenarios. These include sewage treatment, stream bank erosion control, islands in drainage ditches which capture highway water run-off, canals with excess nutrients from agricultural run-off, and waters with multiple source contaminants, typical of urban area lakes and ponds, such as our own Hicklin Lake. Over thirty different uses have been found so far for Floating Islands, and their worldwide range includes the USA, Canada, England, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, Korea, and Singapore.

We scheduled a meeting five months ago (April / 12 /2012) with several high profile King County personnel from the Department of Natural Resources and Parks, (DNR&P), where we explained the Floating Island concept and its possibilities for Hicklin Lake.

Very little feedback was received from DNR&P until a reporter from the White Center News made an inquiry for an article he was writing about Floating Islands. The article was published in the paper on 8/24/2012.

The response from the DNR&P personnel in this newspaper article raises questions about the accuracy of the information given to the reporter.

We would like to supply first, a few facts, then specific responses to key points:

•Hicklin Lake water has been contaminated for 47 years.

•Though current laws would have prohibited some of the drainage decisions made by the County during those years, (diverting 750 watershed acres of Salmon Creek basin into Lakewood Park’s small, 4 ½ acre Hicklin Lake, that has no natural outlet) another insult was added when the large wetland located to the Lake’s inlet was filled in and paved over for the West side parking lot. The County must bear responsibility for today’s poor water quality problems.

•In 1975, swimming was banned in the lake due to contaminants (fecal coli forms (“POOP”).

•In 1996 Hicklin Lake was included on the Federal Clean Water Act 303d list of “Impaired Water Bodies”, and remains on that list.

•In 2004 larger double- capacity pumps had to be installed (replacing older pumps) to control the Lake’s yearly flooding. Hicklin Lake water level increased 14 feet one year, backing up water and flooding Mallard Lake apartments.

•In 2005 an Alum treatment was performed, using harsh chemicals to retard the algae covering a large share of the Lake. The County’s graphs showed it was successful from 2005 - 2010.

•Also in 2005 a bio swale was installed at one of the inlets to Hicklin Lake. This swale is known to be undersized for effective treatment of the volume of incoming drainage.

•In 2007 water testing of Mallard Lake by County Surface engineers revealed toxic metals, fecal coli form, (POOP), phosphorus, and urban run off. Mallard Lake is the main inflow to Hicklin Lake via underground piping.

•Also in 2007 a water test report performed by students from the University of Washington noted fecal coli form in Hicklin Lake “consistently exceeds the lowest, Secondary Contact State Water Standard.”(In contrast to the County’s report)

•In 2008, the County received grant funds from the Department of Ecology for White Center Regional Stormwater Improvements, which were intended to help Hicklin Lake. Funds from DOE equaled $1,000,000 for projects totaling more than $1,800,000.

•One subproject within those plans was targeted for “Mallard Lake Water Quality Improvement” at a cost of $751,157, to re-create a wetland next to Mallard Lake.

•The price of obtaining the property to initiate and complete the Mallard Lake subproject was suddenly hiked by the local property owner, making the project out of reach financially for the County.

•The grant money targeted for the Mallard Lake wetland was redistributed within the other subprojects, with permission of DOE.

•It is clear to Friends of Hicklin Lake that the DOE recognized the vital link between a wetland and nearby water quality in Hicklin Lake, which is the reason the subproject costing $751,157 was authorized.

•It is now also clear that the County water engineers are aware that Floating Island technology has been around since the 1990’s.

•What is NOT clear is the reason that Floating Island technology has not been utilized to date. The unfortunate loss of opportunity to create a wetland next to Mallard Lake provided a perfect chance to use this new, workable technology of Floating Islands in its place.

•Instead of focusing on a wetland though, water engineers continued to employ alum treatments in Hicklin Lake, at a cost of $40-$50,000 for each application. The treatment performed in 2005 “lasted about 5 years,” according to the county water engineer, (which, as mentioned above, does not jive with the 2007 water quality samples taken by U of W students) and another alum treatment done in 2011 “did not have the same effect” ( water engineer’s words) Was this a good use of public funds?

•A wetland biologist with Department of Ecology in Olympia already has a prior interest in Floating Island technology, and she is also interested in Managed Aquatic Plant (MAP) systems, a slightly different technology. She is hoping to pilot projects using both systems, and the County water engineer suggested Friends of Hicklin Lake contact her, which we did.

•This same wetland biologist for DOE wondered if perhaps Hicklin Lake would qualify as a “pilot project” for her study, or if instead the County should seek an outright grant for Floating Islands.

•If the County has contacted this DOE biologist, Friends of Hicklin Lake are unaware of it.

•The cost of five Floating Islands is $150,000 - $200,000.

•For comparison, the cost of recent Disc Golf course revisions in Lakewood Park was $181,000 (by public disclosure).

•Should funding for a sport in a public park take precedence over funding for water quality?

Some specific responses to water engineer statements:

1) Sally Abella, water engineer III, states “there are funding constraints and scientific safeguards involved in the decision to go with one (island) instead of five to begin.” As far as funding, we wonder why the County is not engaging with the DOE for a grant to re-fund the wetland opportunity that was lost in 2008. Five islands is less than one third the cost of the unrealized Mallard Lake Water Quality Improvement subproject of 2008. (Not even taking inflation into account) And the DOE in Olympia has, as mentioned, a biologist already interested in floating island technology. It seems a perfect fit. As far as “scientific safeguards”: to what is the water engineer referring? Floating Islands biomimic wetlands, they are not chemical solutions, such as the alum treatments that have been used in the past and which DO carry risks. We don’t understand this vague, unexplained concern for safeguards.

2) Sally Abella mentions increased costs associated with the need to bring electricity to the islands for a pump, but there is an existing pump house already at Hicklin Lake. It seems rational to use that source of electricity, and run a line out to the island(s) if required.

3) Sally Abella questions the island’s ability to deal with phosphorus. We have already suggested that they look at the Yingri Lake project in Jinan, China, via Floating Islands International. That lake has problems similar to Hicklin Lake, is also in a public park, and has had good success with phosphorus reduction. (Christie True, director of DNRP, states “We have done a great deal of research”, but County personnel did not respond to our inquiry as to whether they researched that specific, relevant project or not.)

4) Sally states that Floating Islands International was unable to provide clear reasoning for their estimate of five islands. In our own conversations with the FII representative, he was quite clear that their experiences with numerous island projects have shown them that 5% coverage of an impaired water body is desirable, though they learned that even 1% - 1.25% of coverage had some effect on algae growth. The recommended coverage for Hicklin Lake is 5 islands, (5,000 square feet in five islands, anchored) or 3% coverage. If we could afford 5% that would be even better. Extrapolating further, it is logical that the more island coverage can be provided, the faster the water can be cleansed. Similarly, if pumps are used, instead of a passive system, the cleansing action is speeded up. (It provides more of a continuous “conveyor belt” of food to the microbes.) What the County wants to authorize as an experiment is about ½ a percentage point instead of 3%. But contrary to the statement by the water engineer III, the rationale behind the recommended acreage for a given lake size, given by Floating Islands International, was not difficult to understand, even by non-engineers.

5) Sally Abella states it’s (Hicklin Lake) “a small urban lake, so it’s not the same as a high mountain lake and it never will be.” Friends of Hicklin Lake have never claimed that Hicklin Lake should be equated with a “high mountain lake”. We are well aware that our Washington lakes at higher altitudes are ecologically distinct from their lowland counterparts, and even when the lakes were original and pristine, they harbored totally different flora and fauna. Having participated in amphibian surveys in lakes at variable elevations, we have seen these differences firsthand. Equating the two is similar to comparing apples and oranges. We do feel, however, that our “small, urban lake” should not be written off by County employees as a contaminated failure and a lost cause. As a community we need to do our part to correct previous unwise water decisions, to help clean up Puget Sound and also improve our local public park.

With Floating Island technology, we should be able to get a start at doing that, and we hope the County will recognize the need for a bold strategy for Hicklin Lake this time, not one more small experiment. The companies which manufacture floating islands have already performed thousands of experiments, the results of which are ours to see and peruse on the internet. Case studies and data are posted for anyone to read. Perhaps a field trip by a County water engineer to a Floating Island research station is in order. We need to let the data speak, or send someone in person. But we don’t need to delay action on the lake by reinventing the wheel on a local level.

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