Old experiment retried with Fountain Lake water

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 3, 1999

There’s an old advertising slogan based on the phrase, &uot;sky blue waters,&uot; which was once used very effectively by a famous Minnesota brewery.

Friday, September 03, 1999

There’s an old advertising slogan based on the phrase, &uot;sky blue waters,&uot; which was once used very effectively by a famous Minnesota brewery. For many lakes in the northern part of the state and elsewhere in the nation the clarity of water implied by that slogan is certainly true. Then there’s Fountain Lake.

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Let’s face facts, folks. What we have with the city’s centerpiece lake is a prime example of mighty murky water.

However, the lack of clarity for the water in our lake doesn’t compare at all with what I grew up with out in east Oregon. What we had running through the center of Baker (now Baker City on the maps) about five to six decades ago was the dirtiest river in the nation!

The name of that watery disaster was the Powder River. (There’s another more famous and longer Powder River out in Montana and Wyoming.) The Oregon version is about a hundred miles long and located mostly within Baker County. This river originates in the Elkhorn Range of the Blue Mountains. That should imply a pristine mountain stream where one could find trout galore.

Instead, what I grew up seeing was a muddy, murky mess where nothing could live very long, even a bullhead. How bad was this water? There was a persistent rumor that traces of cyanide from a gold mining operation upriver from the city was in this water. We wouldn’t let our dogs drink this river water. They would do better drinking water out of a mud puddle or the street gutter. And, unlike kids in other towns, we didn’t have swimming holes in that river. However, we did have a natatorium (indoor swimming pool) and an outdoor pool about 10 miles away which was fed by water from a hot spring.

The cause of all this pollution was a huge gold mining dredge about 30 miles upriver from Baker in a mountain valley. This floating monster in its own movable pond dug its way through several thousand acres of land and dumped the waste rock and soil behind itself into the river.

That particular dredge stopped operations in 1954. It sits in a pond on the edge of the mountain town of Sumpter, Ore., and is now part of a new state park. The Sumpter Valley Dredge produced $4.5 million in gold (based on $35 an ounce) during its 15 or so years of digging and polluting.

Oregon’s Powder River during that era was a polluted mess for about 60 miles until the water was slowed down in the reservoir behind the Thief Valley Dam near the town of North Powder. From this point on downstream to the Snake River the river again ran clear.

One of our grade school teachers had the students conduct a simple experiment with the local river water. We each took a gallon jug and filled it with water from the Powder River. Then we were supposed to ignore this jug for several weeks. By this time the muck had settled on the bottom of the jug and the top portion contained clear water.

Our local lake isn’t really muddy, but it’s certainly murky. So, just for the heck of it, I decided to repeat the old grade school experiment with water from Fountain Lake. On June 18, 1999, I took a glass gallon jug and filled it with water from a place near the city beach. I used a glass jug because plastic isn’t clear and there might be a problem with corrosion from the lake water.

About a week later I noticed that most of the whatever originally suspended in the water had settled to the bottom. However, I noticed a tiny organism still swimming around inside the jug. It was obviously looking for its buddies. After another week or so, it also became a part of the bottom scum.

Yet, there was an aspect of this experiment that didn’t work out like the one or two I had conducted years ago back in eastern Oregon. After a full two months, the clarity of the Fountain Lake water remained the same. It just didn’t clear up at all. What I ended up with was a slimy skim of whatever on the bottom of the jug and a gallon of water which still had a dull yellowish-brown appearance.