A Flawed Gem

FARMER, Wash.–Gems come in many colors, and for the lake once known as “the gem” of Washington trout fishing, the spectrum has included shades of pink, maroon, chocolate and turquoise, often changing complexion in just days as “algae” blooms mature.

JAMESON LAKE, APRIL 30, 2005, OPENING DAY OF TROUT SEASON. (TIM BEHNE, FOSTER CREEK CONSERVATION DISTRICT)

After ice-off this winter, Jameson Lake turned dark green, reflecting the clouds scudding over Douglas County that day. Only test results due after we went to press will tell if green’s good – the other colors are potential problems – but if you’re a trout angler or own one of the lakeside resorts, there are at least two good signs for the late-April opener.

“Oxygen levels in the main part of the lake are near 100 percent (3 feet down), so currently conditions are good for the fish,” said Tim Behne of the Foster Creek Conservation District after sampling on March 9, adding that he saw trout jumping at the north end too.

“It looks good,” added Ginger Merritt at Jack’s Resort (509-683-1095) on the lake’s south end. “A month and a half ago we would not have been having this conversation.”

Final decision on stocking won’t come till sometime later in April.

UNLESS YOU’RE A local rancher or Missoula Flood nut, there’s not much to draw passersby off of Highway 2 and up Moses Coulee.

Fishermen, however, have long left the two-lane here and taken the winding country road through sagebrush flats and under towering coulee walls up to the lake.

“They used to expect 3,000 to 5,000 people on the south end on opening weekend,” says Merritt whose family had a long association with the resort before she bought it in 2001 (“I’ve been coming here since before I was born,” she jokes).

In past seasons and decades, the lake was “old reliable,” the safest spring bet for stocked trout in the northern Columbia Basin. Where cold fronts or spinyray infestations could put the clamp on a popular nearby chain, fishing always perked right along on Jameson’s 331 acres, fueled by rainbows up to 20 inches with fall fingerlings filled out to 12 inches.

Pull up to its eastern shore at midmorning on the opener and you could always find the same scene: happy campers – many from hundreds of miles away ­– happy kids, happy oldsters, everyone enjoying the friendly family atmosphere.

AH, YES, THE GOOD old days. They can make you forget that Jameson has suffered from periodic water quality issues back to the 1960s.

But in recent years the algae problem – really a cyanobacteria problem – has mushroomed. The lake has swung from meso/eutrophic (OK for trout) to hypereutrophic (very, very bad for them) in just a few months.

Behne, who has been monitoring Jameson for six years, watched in spring 2005 as the lake “went from a gooey pink color” to dark chocolate brown in June to speckled with dead fish in July. The decaying material had sucked all the oxygen out of the water.

JUNE 18, 2005. (TIM BEHNE, FOSTER CREEK CONSERVATION DISTRICT)

But he also watched last year when the lake was “only slightly pink” then turned a milk-chocolate brown but trout survived. (There were reports of dead sculpins and rainbows coming out of ice-off, however.)

OCTOBER 17, 2009. (TIM BEHNE, FOSTER CREEK CONSERVATION DISTRICT)

While Kathy Hamel of the Department of Ecology is analyzing algal toxins in fish tissues statewide and says the agency has some concerns for human and animal health, she says Jameson’s blooms haven’t produced toxins exceeding safe levels.

THE ORGANISMS that produce the kaleidoscope of colors are fueled by phosphorous, mainly in the lake’s sediment, though cattle operations continue to contribute.

Basically, when the lake turns over in spring and fall, windy days mix the phosphorous throughout the water, feeding the bacteria. Different species make different hues.

At the peak of 2005’s event, levels rose to over 200 parts per billion from 17 ppb the year before.

“It killed us,” says Merritt. “People drove in that spring, saw the maroon bloom and left. But fishing was great.”

The problem is that Jameson often isn’t high enough to drain down the coulee, so after the bloom dissolves, the phosphorous settles back to the bottom, ready for the next blow.

“It didn’t do this when we bought the property,” says Merritt. “It’s gotten progressively worse and worse.”

The lake’s too big and deep to dredge, but if efforts to turn cyanobacteria into gas ever become worthwhile, you could start to harvest it away, says Behne.

For now, that’s as likely as another idea: letting one hundred years of nonorganic sediment cap the phosphorous. Binding it with alum was looked at, but would cost $2 million every seven to 10 years.

A consultant’s 2007 report instead recommends pumping liquid oxygen into the lake. That would decrease the phosphorous and increase trout habitat, says Peter Burgoon of Water Quality Engineering in Wenatchee.

Cost for pumps, hoses, tanks, operating, etc.? Roughly $1.9 mill over 24 years.

The next step, says Burgoon, would be an economic evaluation. But right now, nobody’s doing anything besides monitoring the lake and its blooms.

THE RESORTS AND anglers are awaiting word from Bob Jateff, the state fisheries biologist. In mid-April he plans on running water quality tests and perhaps installing a “live box” with fish. State managers don’t want to risk stocking trout where they won’t survive for anglers to catch; results will tell Jateff whether the lake’s suitable.

MARCH 9, 2010. (TIM BEHNE, FOSTER CREEK CONSERVATION DISTRICT)

It was a nail-biter last spring too. Just four days before opening day the state announced that 34,000 catchables had gone in, bolstering fingerlings released in 2008.

That led to good spring and fall fishing, Merritt says.

In March she was pretty sure Jameson will get the “premium” plant, 8- to 12-inch catchables and some triploids.

Let’s hope so – and hope too that enough people care to step up and help jump-start the recovery of what was once one of the state’s best stocker trout lakes. –Leroy Ledeboer contributed reporting to this article

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One Response to “A Flawed Gem”

  1. Jameson Lake Stocked « Northwest Sportsman Says:

    […] wrote about Jameson and its troubles in our April issue, reporting that March oxygen tests showed good levels at midlake and that fish were reported […]

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