Sunday, May 18, 2014

Johnson Lake expedition

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Today's adventure takes us to another obscure city park along the Columbia Slough. If you take MAX to the Portland Airport (or I-205, I guess), you'll see a big ugly factory a bit north of the Parkrose-Sumner station, and a lake directly north of the factory, right next to the freeway. This is Johnson Lake, home to the city's "Johnson Lake Property", which covers roughly the eastern third of the lake plus some shoreline on the north shore. When I say today's adventure takes us there, I mean in a very broad sense; these photos were taken from a moving MAX train, and I'm not sure what if any public access there is to the lake. The word "Property" in the park's name is usually a clue that it isn't really set up to welcome visitors. (See also the Jefferson St. & Munger Properties in the West Hills, for example.)

As with other places of the "Property" variety, the city's list of park amenities is just the boilerplate "Includes natural area". Unlike the others, though, the page continues with a rather extensive history section. As the story goes, a century ago Johnson Lake was a popular local recreation spot, with swimming, boating, and even a dance hall (although the dance hall burned sometime in the 1940s). I don't have any colorful stories of the era to pass along because the Oregonian database doesn't mention Johnson Lake until the 1980s or so, I suppose because it was too far out of town for the paper to care. Longtime residents remember those days fondly, though. But then, in the 1950s, a giant Owens-Illinois glass plant moved in on the south shore of the lake and began discharging some sort of sludge or goop into the water. And because this was the Good Old Days, there was nothing anyone could do about it. Understandably, recreational use of the lake declined after that.

State environmental testing revealed elevated PCB levels in the area, as well as various other fun substances. A "Projects & Programs" pdf from the Columbia Slough Watershed Council describes various remediation projects that have taken place over the last decade, including a 2008 "pollution reduction facility" on the south side of the lake, built jointly by the Bureau of Environmental Services and the glass company; native turtle population studies beginning in 1999; and a 2012 sediment cap to isolate contaminated lake sediments, which supposedly fixed the lake, at least to the state DEQ's satisfaction. A 2012 Draft Feasibility Study for cleaning up the Portland Harbor Superfund Site cited the earlier and much smaller Johnson Lake cleanup as a precedent on how to handle a couple of technical details. I'm not a biologist, nor am I an EPA regulation expert, so don't ask me to explain what that's all about.

Before we all shake our fists at the horrible glass plant, it's worth pointing out this isn't just any old glass plant, it's a beer bottle plant. It's said to produce a million bottles a day, and the odds are pretty good that your local microbrew bottle came from here, and was made from recycled glass. And for that we have Oregon's Bottle Bill to thank, in part, because it results in a high quality supply of used glass, separated out from plastic and other recylables. Back in the 1950s this plant probably made bottles for your grandpa's beloved Blitz Weinhard or Lucky Lager. So two of our regional obsessions, local beer and saving the world, are sort of in collision here.

Various other environmental items popped up while searching for info about Johnson Lake:

  • The lake is mentioned in a study on freshwater mussels of the Columbia Slough. One of the studied sites was Whitaker Slough, a side branch of the Columbia Slough that drains Johnson Lake and flows into Whitaker Ponds. The study found that freshwater mussels in Whitaker Slough tended to be older than in other parts of the Columbia Slough, and they hypothesized that recruitment of juvenile mussels might be a problem here, or might have been a problem until recently.
  • A study on native turtles of the Portland area found very few at Johnson Lake. The authors don't have a definite explanation as to why, but they speculate that the poor aquatic conditions can't be helping.
  • The sycamore maple trees around the lake are an invasive species, apparently.
  • The lake lies within the Columbia South Shore Well Field, Portland's backup drinking water supply when Bull Run is offline or can't meet demand. Here's a Mercury article about a bike tour of the well field. I should point out the city draws underground aquifer water, not surface water, and icky stuff on the surface doesn't necessarily mean icky stuff at well depth. It still seems kind of ooky though. The city does have a program to protect wellhead water quality, but it seems to be focused more on septic tanks and new accidental spills versus existing, persistent contaminants like the ones here.
  • Surprisingly, fishing is technically legal here, so long as you don't eat the fish. Boating is off limits, however, since much of the lake is still privately owned. The notion of swimming in the lake didn't even come up in that discussion thread, but I'd imagine you aren't supposed to do that either.

Despite all of this, Johnson Lake is a neighborhood park in an area that doesn't have many parks, and the local neighborhood association's trying to make the best of it. Their website calls it a "hidden gem", and they've organized volunteer cleanup efforts focusing on trash and so forth. Which is great, but I'm not sure what's really doable with the place beyond general habitat restoration. It's a park centered around a lake, but visitors probably shouldn't touch the lake, and the surroundings are mostly industrial and not very scenic. This sort of limits the possibilities. So maybe a nature trail would work here, maybe a birdwatching spot or two, assuming the lake attracts birds. I found one report of a possible "American x Eurasian hybrid widgeon" sighting there, but generally it doesn't seem to be a popular spot right now. And no, I don't know what a hybrid widgeon is; I'm going to assume it's caused by the fun lake chemicals, sort of like Blinky, the three-eyed fish on the Simpsons. Hey, it's a theory.

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