Our region’s rapid growth is straining our lakes, especially little lakes on the fringes of urban areas. When growth approaches, the communities around them aren’t always prepared to protect them from pollution.
KUOW’s Region of Boom team has been hanging out in Black Diamond, because it’s the future site of King County’s biggest housing development. That’s how we heard the curious story of Lake Sawyer’s weir master.
The water level of Lake Washington is controlled by a corps of engineers at the Ballard Locks. The water level of Lake Sawyer, in Black Diamond, is controlled by a weir. A small dam, built back in the 1950s. It has a rinky dink fish ladder with a board that you can take out to lower the lake, and someone has to take care of it.
“I think a weir master is the technical word for the person who takes the board out of the weir. It’s very unique. It’s very particular,” said Andy Williamson, who works for the city of Black Diamond.
I told him I wanted to meet this mysterious individual. “Do you know the weir master personally? Do you know who it is and do you know that person?" I asked.
“I knew who the weir master used to be, but that person has retired and moved to Arizona. So I don’t know who currently is the weir master,” he said. But he did have a lead.
The weir is on private property. The guys who live on either side of the weir technically own the weir. So in a way, they’re responsible for it.
Lake management is really expensive, which is why Lake Sawyer and many other lakes go unmanaged. Without monitoring, these lakes often lose oxygen and develop toxic algae blooms. When they decline too far, their problems flow downstream and create larger problems in Puget Sound.
This is what a weir looks like:
I wanted to find Lake Sawyer's weir master, so Lake Sawyer residents Cindy and Bill Wheeler rowed me to the weir.
On the way over, she told me how Bill courted her on this lake. “I said, I don’t know how to water ski. And he said, I’d be happy to teach you.” Thirty years later, they’re both still living on this lake. But they don’t know the weir master.
Our boat arrived at the dam. Kenny Dooley waved us over from the shore. Half of the weir is on his property.
“Would you call yourself the weir master?” I asked him.
“No. I wouldn’t say that," he said. Dooley told me that when he bought his property in 1996, the deed didn’t say anything about the weir or his responsibility for it.
“The people that I bought the place from – you know, I was told that he pretty much maintained this," he said, gesturing to the weir. "And I just thought it was out of the kindness of his heart type deal. And I come to find that it wasn’t that way.”
A few years ago, he learned from the state that if the dam breaks, he has to fix it.
Randy Payne lives on the other side, and shares responsibility for it. “Are you the weir master?” I asked him.
“I don’t think so," he said. "There’s been rumors of one, but I’ve never had anybody introduce themselves or anything like that.”
Payne told me a few years ago he got a binder from the state detailing his responsibility for the weir. He can’t remember what it said.
“I’m not sure where it is. I could try to find it but I don’t know – if I lost it, or where it is…”
Cindy Wheeler wasn’t surprised.
“There isn’t a weir master of Lake Sawyer," she said. "There’s been no entity or individual who has been assigned or identified as the weir master ever since Black Diamond annexed this lake 20-plus years ago.”
On our way back across the lake, Cindy Wheeler told me the weir master, or rather, the lack of a weir master, is a symbol of a larger problem. She says no level of government has demonstrated enough commitment to protect this lake.
“Fish and Wildlife, King County, the Department of Ecology and the city of Black Diamond are all stakeholders in this lake," she said. "They certainly all collect tax dollars from this waterfront district. And they need to have a comprehensive plan that manages everything.”
But she said they don’t.
She said that’s especially important with a 6,000 plus home development being built in Lake Sawyer’s watershed.
Wheeler rowed me to a stream that empties into Lake Sawyer. It flows near part of the future development. Wheeler said by the time we detect this development’s impact on the lake, it will be too late.
“It makes me mad," she said. "We may well harm and kill this resource before anybody gets to enjoy what it once could have been.”
The developer doesn't want to see the lake destroyed either. Colin Lund is Oakpointe’s development director. He said any rain that falls on the new development will be sent back into the ground, where the water can be cleansed by the soil. He said the law forbids the project from adding pollution to Lake Sawyer.
“We are required to do low impact development techniques so we’ve really taken that to heart," he said. "If you were on site today, you would see we’ve installed several rain gardens, which is really kind of the natural way of taking care of storm water, to basically infiltrate the water back into the ground.”
Lund said this development will go beyond the legal requirements for cleaning the rain water. Oakpointe plans to make those water-filtering rain gardens a prominent feature in the landscape, so that people can see them in action, during a rainstorm. The first parts of the development will set the tone.
"We’re not trying to hide the fact that we’re doing low impact development, but we’re trying to celebrate it. And we’re putting it right up front,” he said.
Black Diamond residents are split on whether to trust the developer’s promises to control pollution. Cindy Wheeler didn’t, and she hired some expert help: Rob Zisette, a water quality specialist and senior limnologist with Herrera Environmental Consultants.
“Limnologist? What does that mean?” I asked him.
“Study of lakes,” he said.
Zisette works on some well known lakes. He advises Seattle on how to manage Green Lake, for example.
He said when he got out of college, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shelled out a lot of money to study and restore lakes.
“But those funds have been cut," he said. "The focus now is on salmon in streams, and lakes do not have a funding source.”
He said today, the burden of maintaining lakes falls mostly on the homeowners who live on them.
“Everybody who lives around the lake, people figure they’re rich, they can afford to manage their lake, it’s their problem," he said. "That’s why they’re not giving them money 'cause they’re a bunch of rich lake homeowners, so they’re left with the burden.”
In Black Diamond, there’s a small budget for monitoring Lake Sawyer. But the developer’s plan to filter pollutants out of the storm water is ambitious. Zisette said the developer’s work must be monitored very closely. He said it’s going to take more than a weir master to protect this lake.