Quinault property owners wonder about lake closure

Quinault Indian Nation officials have closed Lake Quinault to most recreational activities for non-tribal members, citing environmental concerns. The bans come just in time for the summer swimming and boating season, and local business owners are beginning to worry about the closure’s affect on summer profits as vacationers start to take their business elsewhere.

Many property owners along the lake say they are unsure about why the lake was closed, as the tribe hasn’t offered evidence of significant pollution.

The Quinault Business Committee, the tribe’s ruling governmental body, voted June 4 to close the lake to non-tribal swimming, boating and fishing. Property owners are also prohibited from maintaining and building docks, removing plants or wood from the lake and discharging liquid and solid materials into the water.

The north side of the lake is bordered by Olympic National Park and the south side by the Olympic National Forest. The Quinault Indian Reservation spreads out in a fan shape from the west end of the lake and the tribe governs the body of water.

This June closure vote follows an April decision to close all fishing to non-tribal members. In an April 16 press release, Quinault President Fawn Sharp cited pollution and safety concerns as a reason for the fishing moratorium.

“We are very concerned about water quality in the lake,” Sharp said. “We are concerned that non-tribal septic systems from the surrounding homes and businesses may have resulted in a severe problem with untreated sewage and caused serious health concerns.”

Sharp also cited sewage and safety risks as a reason for the recent recreational closures — although tribal members are still allowed to swim, boat and fish in the lake.

“It is important for people to realize the error of treating our lake as a sewer, building unpermitted docks, violating reasonable safety standards, etc. and committing in a formal sense to recognizing the jurisdiction of the Quinault Nation over its lands and waters,” Sharp said in a statement released to The Daily World.

Brenda Sansom, who owns and leases out two vacation cottages on the lake, said many of her customers are cancelling reservations or asking for discounted rates when they hear of the lake’s closure.

She said she respects the Quinault Indian Nation’s interest in preserving the lake’s health, but she’s confused about why the tribe chose to prohibit swimming for only non-tribal members if the lake is really that unhealthy.

“It seems very discriminatory,” Sansom said. “Why can the tribal members swim in the lake if its supposed to be a contamination problem? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Sharp was didn’t fully explain why members of the Quinault Indian Nation would be allowed to swim and not non-tribal members. When asked whether people swimming in the lake should be worried about their health, she said Quinault officials “are monitoring use by tribal members and will take whatever action is deemed appropriate.”

Many guests see an inability to swim — or even wade — in the picturesque lake as a “deal-breaker,” Sansom said. She’s had several regular customers cancel or not make reservations this year. And while the cottage owner hasn’t felt the financial repercussions of the closure yet, she’s worried that she will soon.

Her husband has suggested selling the cabins and moving away from Lake Quinault.

“I have three jobs just to make ends meet,”Sansom said. “We rely on our bookings to pay our mortgage.”

Chris Iversen, who owns the Lochaerie Resort, said she could live with the fishing restrictions — she sent guests who were interested in fishing to places on the Quinault River. But the ban on swimming and boating is different. She said there’s no reason to visit Lake Quinault with the restrictions in place.

“Our customers are unhappy about it and we’re unhappy about it,” Iversen said. “It’s disappointing, especially since there’s not a clear reason why they closed it.”

Other businesses in the Lake Quinault area declined comment to The Daily World, saying they feared further closures and retribution from the Quinault Indian Nation.

Jeff Nelson, environmental health director for Grays Harbor County, said he’s not aware of any large amounts of sewage leaking into Lake Quinault. Although the county doesn’t govern the lake, Nelson’s office is notified of faulty septic systems.

“We’re not aware of any issue up there that would impair water quality to a level where it would be closed,” Nelson said. “But we’re not up there monitoring water quality.”

Sharp said the seriousness of the lake pollution “has yet to be determined,” and said “hot spots” have been detected in the lake in recent months. However, Sharp failed to provide any specific information about the pollution such as fecal coliform levels, the amount of fecal bacteria in the water.

The Quinault Indian Nation hasn’t said if or when the lake will be re-opened.

“Our objective is to protect the lake, related resources, our members and to help members of the non-tribal community realize they must respect the property, resources and rights of the Quinault Indian Nation,” Sharp said.