On a recent sunny afternoon in Fort Steilacoom Park, the uneven path around Waughop Lake was packed with people circling the tranquil water.
The paved loop is one of the most heavily used features at the largest park in the Lakewood. It is popular with the roughly 1 million annual park visitors.
“You will see little old ladies, you’ll see people with their kids in strollers, you’ll see kids learning to ride bikes,” said Mary Dodsworth, Lakewood’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services director.
But what about the lake itself? Would anybody take a dip on a hot day?
“Absolutely not,” said Diana Lang of Tacoma.
Lang’s parents live in Lakewood, and she regularly walks the Waughop Lake path, most of the time with Meka, her 3-year-old shepherd mix. As Meka pulled her around last week, Lang explained the path’s draw.
“I just love coming out where it’s quiet,” she said. “There are some lakes in Tacoma I could go to, but it’s just a little more quiet and peaceful here.”
After years walking the trail, Lang knows despite how calm the water looks, it’s best to stay away.
The 33-acre lake has been under a Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department warning advisory for toxic algae since May 2009. The shoreline is dotted with signs warning about the health risks of contact with the water.
The city recently received a $150,000 grant from the state Department of Ecology to help pay for a lake management plan. It would spell out how to handle Waughop Lake’s algae levels.
“Most people’s desire is to improve the water quality and make it so it’s not toxic all the time,” said Greg Vigoren, Lakewood’s surface water division manager. “Obviously we’ll have to see what comes out of the plan. Cost drives a lot of what we decide to do.”
The toxic blooms typically occur in the summer when the sun shines for long periods. When the light hits the sediment at the bottom of the shallow lake, it spurs growth.
“It’s a kettle lake; basically it was created from the glaciers. It’s really kind of a big mud puddle,” Dodsworth said.
The lake was originally called Mud Lake until it was named after former Western State Hospital Superintendent John Waughop, who ran the hospital from 1880 to 1897.
Stories of the lake and nearby hospital are intertwined. Patients farmed the land around the lake from 1915 to 1965. The soil wasn’t ideal for growing crops, so rich sediment was pumped from the lake bottom and spread on the fields.
Livestock grazed on surrounding grass. And while there’s no written record to support it, rumor tells of deceased livestock parts – hooves, bones and other unused parts – that were thrown into the water over the years.
“They could have dumped manure in there, they could have dumped car parts in there, I don’t know,” Dodsworth said. “They used it for lots of different things.”
But dead animals are not the cause of today’s problems. It is the living ones – mainly ducks and Canada geese – that are likely big contributors to the chemical imbalance.
“People come and feed the ducks, which they’re not supposed to do, and that brings down more fecal matter,” Dodsworth said.
Other likely contributors include stormwater runoff from neighboring Pierce College and groundwater from surrounding residential neighborhoods. Unlike other lakes in Lakewood where water flows in and out, the water at Waughop has nowhere to go.
Steilacoom Lake, Lake Louise and Gravelly Lake have all had problems with toxic algae, but not to the same extent as Waughop Lake, Vigoren said.
Homeowners associations in the neighborhoods that surround those lakes keep tabs on the algae blooms, but the city is responsible for monitoring Waughop Lake because it is part of a public park.
A consultant will be hired to draft the city’s new plan for Waughop Lake, and it will include public input. Data from water quality studies previously taken by Pierce College, University of Washington-Tacoma, the Pierce County Conservation District and health department will also be used, Vigoren said.
The city took over management of the lake in 2006. In 2008 it received a state grant to pay for the application of calcium hydroxide to see if it would reduce algae growth. The effort did not work as envisioned.
The hope for the new lake management plan is that it will suggest different cleanup options. Ideas include trying another round of chemical treatments that would become regular practice; draining the lake and dredging at least a foot of the sediment depth; and adding a water feature that would move the water and increase airflow.
After reviewing all options, the study could also suggest leaving the lake untouched, like it has been for hundreds of years.
“If we do nothing, maybe the lake is more of an aesthetic water feature than an active water feature,” Dodsworth said. “Like a big pond.”
Or a big mud puddle.