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Crater Lake water

Crater Lake’s exceptionally blue water comes from a lack of suspended particles in the lake. Light is able to travel far into the depths, allowing the water to absorb every color except blue.

Crater Lake and Waldo Lake — arguably the Cascades’ finest aquatic gems —received additional state protections for their stunningly blue and clear waters after Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission designated them “outstanding resource waters” on January 21.

They are only the second and third bodies of water to receive this distinction in the state.

The designation through the Clean Water Act, which requires that the quality of an exceptional waterway may not degrade below its current level, is unlikely to impact current activities permitted at the lakes. But it could spell more funding for future efforts to study and protect them.

The commission had previously designated the North Fork Smith River and its tributaries as ORWs in 2017. The Northwest Environmental Defense Center, a nonprofit engaged in legal efforts to protect natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, originally submitted a petition to Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality to have the EQC designate Waldo Lake and its wetlands as an ORW in April 2019. That July, DEQ Director Richard Whitman sent a memo to EQC asking it to recommend Crater Lake be added to the petition as well.

Whitman cited the lake’s exceptional water quality, its position as the focal point of Oregon’s only national park and its cultural significance to the Klamath Tribes (including the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin peoples) and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians as reasons for the addition.

Debra Sturdevant, Water Quality Standards program lead for ODEQ, said it made sense to assess both lakes for the ORW designation at the same time.

“Similar to Waldo Lake, [Crater Lake] is a very unique, very pristine, clear, high water quality lake. And often the two had been mentioned together as likely candidates,” she said. “It just seemed like if we were doing the rulemaking for Waldo Lake, it made sense to include Crater Lake as well.”

Crater and Waldo Lakes are oligotrophic, or underproductive lakes low in nutrients. Their conditions allow for little growth of aquatic plants and animals, leading to a low concentration of particles suspended in their waters and, as a result, high clarity.

That’s what makes them so blue — without much else to bounce off of, light travels straight into the lake’s depths, where water molecules absorb longer, redder wavelengths and reflect shorter, bluer ones.

The new distinction doesn’t change much about how the lakes are managed, and that’s kind of the point. While the lakes far and away exceed Oregon’s water quality standards, Sturdevant said the ORW designation elevates the standard for what’s considered acceptable water quality in the lakes to whatever level they’re currently at now.

Essentially, they don’t need to be improved beyond their current state, but they can’t decline, either.

“These lakes have better water quality than would be required,” she said. “We want to maintain the current high quality that they have and not allow any degradation.”

Before a public comment period last summer, during which DEQ reported that nearly all comments were in favor of the designation, the agency engaged a group of stakeholders involved with both lakes, including National Park Service and Forest Service employees, environmental group representatives and local government officials. The committee advised DEQ on how the designation would translate into rules governing the lakes and evaluated whether it would have economic impacts on nearby communities.

Klamath County Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris was on that committee and said she wanted to make sure the new rules wouldn’t negatively impact Crater Lake National Park’s operations and, by extension, Klamath County’s growing tourism industry.

Because the rules consider existing recreation like hiking, swimming and operating boat tours on the lake as part of Crater Lake’s environmental baseline, she said there’s no economic downside to the park having this distinction. In fact, the distinction itself could bring more visitors to the area.

“Having the opportunity for Crater Lake to get this special designation in Oregon likely will increase our ability to attract tourists,” Minty Morris said. “We know that there are certain people that really value those kinds of designations, pay attention to them and would probably travel accordingly. It’s not a huge game-changer by any stretch, but I do think it helps elevate the park’s already high profile.”

Because Waldo Lake is in Willamette National Forest and Crater Lake is in Crater Lake National Park, the federal agencies that manage the waterways already hold them to a high standard.

Craig Ackerman, superintendent of Crater Lake National Park, said legislation that created the park directs the National Park Service to leave the lake “unimpaired in perpetuity.”

“We already have quite a high level of protection for the waters in the lake,” Ackerman said. “We appreciate that the state of Oregon has just recognized the fact that this lake has and deserves the highest level of protection possible.”

Ackerman said that while NPS is committed to managing the park’s lands in a way that ensures it won’t decline over time, the new designation adds another layer of protection by applying the Clean Water Act to the water itself, providing “another set of eyes.” He doesn’t expect the average park visitor to notice any changes resulting from the rule.

If the park decides to carry out major construction projects that could result in temporary discharge into the lake (like, for example, improving facilities at the base of the Cleetwood Cove trail, the only public access trail into the caldera), DEQ will have to consider this distinction in that permitting process. The rules surrounding ORW designations, however, do allow for temporary stormwater runoff permits that will improve park infrastructure without long-term water quality impacts. Overall, both NPS and DEQ said the designation will lead to further collaboration between their agencies in the future.

Connie Dou, manager for ODEQ’s Water Quality Standards and Assessments Section, said while the protection may seem redundant, it’s complementary to the existing rules in place by federal land management agencies.

“The Services are the land managers, and DEQ—based on the Clean Water Act—has set a goal for the water quality of the lake and prohibits any backsliding from the existing water quality,” she said. “This is a starting point of the collaboration between DEQ and the Forest Service and the Park Service really working together to achieve that goal.”

NPS scientists said having the designation could be helpful when they apply for funding to research the lake. It’s already studied extensively under the park’s long-term monitoring program, which has been tracking the lake’s water quality for decades, but there are further areas of study, like the plight of the lake’s endemic Mazama newt, plagued by invasive crayfish.

Jennifer Gibson, chief of resources and fire at the park, said Crater Lake’s newest decoration will help it stand out when competing against other national parks in grant applications to the National Park Service.

At the end of the day, park staff see the new designation as an acknowledgement of Crater Lake’s uniqueness and importance. Ackerman called it “another feather in the cap” on top of the litany of awards, honors and “Top 10” placements in travel magazines the park has received over the years.

Park biologist Scott Girdner said while the ORW label doesn’t ostensibly change much by way of park operations, it’s nice to see the lake’s exceptional ecosystem recognized.

“It’s always a help to have that additional acknowledgement that states, ‘Hey, this is a special place, and we shouldn’t forget about that,’” he said.