Managing Haven Lake's big leaf pondweed causes big dispute
A four-year battle over aquatic plants in Mason County's Haven Lake is pitting neighbor against neighbor and has spawned a civil trial and accusations of harassment.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TAHUYA, Mason County — A four-year battle over aquatic plants is pitting neighbor against neighbor along the otherwise peaceful, tree-lined shores of Haven Lake.
The bitter dispute over how to treat the common waterweed and big leaf pondweed that grow on the lake bottom has spawned two lawsuits, accusations of threats and gunfire and thousands of calls and emails to the governor's office, state agencies and the Mason County Sheriff's Office.
"Haven Lake has taken a lot of our time — hundreds and hundreds of hours," said Kathy Hamel, an aquatic-plant specialist for the state Department of Ecology before her retirement last month.
At issue is how to remove the prolific native plants. On one side are the residents who consider the plants to be weeds and seek the option of treating them with chemicals. On the other are those who oppose chemical treatment and favor pulling the plants by hand, or leaving them alone.
Hamel said disagreements over the use of chemicals in lakes aren't uncommon, but the duration of the 69-acre Haven Lake dispute is unusual.
"There are some very persistent people on that lake," she said diplomatically.
The rancor at Haven Lake has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks, with warring residents filing for two anti-harassment orders in Mason County District Court.
On Tuesday, Cathy and Gary Backlund obtained an anti-harassment order against their neighbor Ed Soden, whom they accuse of blasting rock music at them from a boombox placed near their shared property line.
Cathy Backlund is a staunch opponent of chemical treatment while Soden supports it.
"I can't stand her," said Soden, a graduate of The Evergreen State College, who describes himself as an environmentalist. "She looks at me and asks how many plants I think the lake needs, and I tell her, 'None, Cathy. I don't need any.' "
The Backlunds, in turn, have been accused by another waterfront resident, Paul Vierela, of harassing him by writing letters and complaining about him to his employer. Vierela also favors treating the plants with chemicals.
If emails to state agencies from people at the center of the dispute are to be believed, one resident has fired a warning shot across the bow of another's kayak, another has tried to run over a swimmer with a boat, and others have been sneaking around taking photographs of their neighbors.
The flames were further fanned when Backlund said she saw evidence of illegal chemical treatment of the lake and reported her suspicions to Ecology in June.
An inspector with the department, Rod Thysell, visited the lake and issued a report saying the growth and concentration of plants led him to believe that "chemicals had been used in the near term, in a random manner, at inappropriate concentrations."
Last month, the Kitsap Sun reported Thysell's findings in a front-page story. The newspaper also printed an editorial cartoon showing an aerial view of Haven Lake with the word "moron" spelled out in weeds.
"I resented that," said Mark MacCubbin, a retired civilian contractor for the Navy who lives at the lake year round. "That just made our property values go down. It makes us sound like we are just an ignorant bunch of heathen hillbillies who dump poison into the lake and don't care about the future."
Despite Thysell's report, MacCubbin said no one he knows has used chemicals in the lake.
"We are trying to do this the right way," he said. "We are the only group, among the 22 lake groups in Mason County, who have applied for county permits to hand-pull the weeds. Everyone else is just doing it on their own."
MacCubbin, former vice president of the Haven Lake Property Owners' Association, said Thysell's report was based on observation alone and that neither plants nor the water was tested. He said plant growth in the lake is cyclic and this year's cool weather conditions held down the growth naturally.
Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for Ecology, acknowledged that Thysell did not test for chemicals but said he is trained to make such assessments.
Hamel, the retired aquatic-plant specialist, said there is really no way to know conclusively what happened to the plants.
"To be honest, it's impossible to look at a body of water after the fact and know for sure what happened," she said.
Ecology has not taken a position on whether, or how, Haven Lake residents should manage their native, nuisance vegetative issues.
Kent said the department is charged with enforcing and upholding state laws that are written to balance fishing, boating and recreational uses, as well as environmental issues. She said the laws require the department to issue permits for the chemical treatment of plants where appropriate.
"One reason for that," said Hamel, "is that if you don't give people a legal way to do it, they will do it on their own."
The aquatic vegetation had been a topic of discussion among members of the Haven Lake Property Owners' Association for decades, according to MacCubbin. "Every year everybody complained about the weeds, but nobody ever did anything about them," he said.
The issue heated up four years ago when the association was granted a state permit to chemically treat lake plants.
When the association made plans to treat the lake in 2008 with the herbicide Diquat, resident Monica Harle sought an injunction to prevent treatment.
A judge denied the injunction and the lake was chemically treated that summer, according to MacCubbin.
The following year, "the weeds came back with a vengeance," said resident Van Tarver. "You could not drive through them (in a boat) without dragging 15 feet of weeds behind you," he said.
A compromise was reached, and in the summer of 2009, residents banded together to pull by hand approximately 6,000 pounds of plants.
But the success of that community hand-pull did not resolve the underlying philosophical differences of lake residents. Hundreds of letters and emails continued to pour into state and federal agencies, legislators and the governor's office over the next two years.
This year, the homeowners association was granted a permit from the county to again remove the weeds by hand, MacCubbin said. Harle has challenged the permit and filed suit against the county and the homeowners association.
The case is scheduled for trial next month in Mason County Superior Court.
Harle could not be reached for comment, and her attorney declined to discuss the case. Court documents indicate she is challenging the permit because she believes the homeowners association is a voluntary group that does not have the legal authority to act on behalf of all residents.
Backlund, who doesn't oppose pulling the weeds by hand, says she became convinced during her world travels that she needed to educate her neighbors about the fragility of native ecosystems and the potential long-term dangers of chemical use.
"I saw people in poor parts of the world living right next to polluted water, and they didn't even know any better," said Backlund. "I felt very strongly that I needed to step up and educate people."
MacCubbin, who lives in the lake's cove, where water is shallower and the plants thicker, said her attitude irks him and others.
"She thinks we are ghetto cove dwellers and don't know any better," he said.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org