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Neighbors plan to sue Oak Lodge Sanitary District over pollution concerns

About 200 yards away from the Willamette River in Oak Grove, the small River Forest Lake provides a tranquil and beautiful environment for the surrounding residents who privately own the lake. But according to the River Forest Lake Home Owners Association, trouble lies beneath the water’s surface.

PHOTO BY: ANYI WONG-LIFTON - The Oak Lodge Sanitary District allegedly has been draining water containing oil and chemicals into River Forest Lake.In May, the homeowner’s association sent a letter to the Oak Lodge Sanitary District claiming the government agency has been draining over 800 acres of surface water containing sediment, oil and chemicals, among other pollutants, into River Forest Lake, which is about 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide. The letter was meant to notify the OLSD that these residents intended to file a tort claim, which allows citizens to sue a government agency for perceived negligence.

PHOTO BY: ANYI WONG-LIFTON - River Forest Lake Home Owners Association members Randy McAdams (left) and Bob Johnson explore the water's edge.The letter also stated that the legal action is coming after the OLSD has ignored the residents’ attempts to resolve the drainage problem or neglected to follow through on any proposals. More than half of the 32 families living around River Forest Lake signed this letter.

According to Bob Johnson, a retired lawyer and resident of the River Forest Lake neighborhood for 41 years, the issue is that the OLSD drains surface water from the over 800-acre River Forest Basin, which includes much of the Oak Grove community, into the lake via River Forest Creek. This leads contaminants from roads and silt to build up in the lake, affecting its quality and water levels.

Johnson pointed out that allowing this potentially polluted stormwater to flow into River Forest Lake contradicts the OLSD’s Surface Water Management program. Its website states that stormwater significantly contributes to water pollution and the program “provides water quality protection for the community by implementing programs, which reduce pollution in our rivers, streams and wetlands caused by urban stormwater runoff.”

Two months ago, Johnson presented the River Forest Lake issue in front of the OLSD board, and board President Terry Gibson asked for his information. But Johnson said he never heard back after sending the requested materials to the OLSD.

OLSD General Manager J. Michael Read said he was unable to comment on the district’s perspective on the issues because of pending litigation prompted by the letter in May.

Years of planning

River Forest Lake residents contacted the OLSD about their concerns for the lake’s siltation at least as far back as 2003. Myron Martwick brought up the issue during a correspondence with then-OLSD General Manager Kent Squires. Squires replied that at the time the district had no data to determine if siltation was occurring or accelerating or what was causing it. Martwick has lived on the lake and served on the OLSD Surface Water Management Citizens Advisory Committee for nearly 30 years.

Martwick said his participation on the committee lead to a Capital Improvement Project being placed on the OLSD’s 10-year Master Plan to move the outlet where water exits from the north end of the lake to a more southern point, which would cost around $330,395. Moving the outlet is intended to improve water flow and quality. However, “the exact design was not finalized since the project was scheduled toward the end of the 10-year plan,” Martwick said.

A report on River Forest Lake submitted to the OLSD in 2007, about four years after Martwick and Squires corresponded, found that most pollutants were not at detectable levels in the lake, but the effect of stormwater on the lake’s quality is likely, though difficult to determine without testing samples directly from the storm drains. The report also said River Forest Creek “transports relatively low amounts of suspended sediment” and states that with the reported siltation rate it would take at least 500 years to fill the lake.

These findings contradict area resident Randy McAdams’ observation that a large sandbar has formed at the north end of the lake, where water enters via the creek and exits. McAdams said the sandbar was not there when he moved to the area 16 years ago.

“This is a privately owned lake. Someone has to take care of it. We are upset because we think the OLSD should at least clean up its drainage,” McAdams said. “Ideally, the silt could be cleaned up before it gets to the lake. If the OLSD mitigates the siltation it could increase the quality of the lake.”

Two sides to come together?

But the fact that River Forest Lake is completely privately owned contributes to why the OLSD is not tending to it and why the homeowners are taking legal action this year.

Last December, neighborhood residents received a letter from the OLSD stating that it would cease cleaning the River Forest Lake outfall structure in July because the job was laborious, costly and risky for the cleaners. Since the lake is privately owned, the OLSD said the neighborhood association should take responsibility.

“The letter really irritated everyone. It seemed to say we should accept whatever the OLSD decides,” Johnson said.

“I moved in and was instantly mesmerized with the lake,” McAdams said, remembering how it used to be possible to canoe and paddle around the lake. Now, it is way too mucky and shallow due in part to seasonal rainfall and increased siltation from the polluted stormwater entering from the creek, McAdams and Johnson said.

What does the River Forest Lake Association want to result from its potential lawsuit against the OLSD?

“The OLSD is draining water onto private property, that’s fine because it feeds the lake,” McAdams said. “We just want the two sides to come together and talk and come to a solution.”