Channeling MacGyver for the good of the fish

The folks who manage WDFW wildlife areas are the MacGyvers of the outdoor world. They can solve most problems and make many repairs using just a leatherman multi-tool, duct tape, and zip ties. Their creative, low-cost solutions have saved a lot of time and money over the years. So it wasn’t surprising that when a need to aerate a lake in a remote area came up, staff were able to come up with an alternative to using electricity, which wasn’t available onsite.

Z Lake is a popular trout lake on the remote Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area.

It’s a beautiful location, but not easy to get to as it requires a hike of about a mile to reach. But the anglers willing to make the effort say it’s worth it. In the past, trout in Z Lake would often die off over the winter. An aerator was installed in the lake to combat this. Aerators are used to increase the dissolved oxygen content of the water. Pumping air into the water improves water quality, prevents silt from building up, and circulates water to prevent stagnation. Aerators also keep lakes from icing over.

The Z Lake aerator was originally installed in 2009 with help from the Spokane Fly Fishers group. In the fall of 2020, wildfire tore through the area, scorching its infrastructure. A cross-program team of WDFW staff recently got together to spend a day bringing the aerator back to life and once again figuring out the challenge of powering an aerator without the luxury of electricity.

Turns out all you need are solar panels, a giant ice chest, boat batteries, and a lot of digging. While Z Lake doesn’t have power, it does have wind (a lot of it) and sun. Both are used to power the aerator- solar panels are used when it’s sunny and a windmill when it’s not. And power from both is stored for days when it is neither sunny or windy.

Unfortunately, both the solar panels and the windmill were both damaged by last year’s wildfire. It was a big job to disconnect the panels and lower them down, especially on an extremely windy day, then carefully hoist replacement panels into place.

Despite being approximately 30 feet off the ground, even the blades of the windmill were melted in the fire. The team disconnected all the wires that coupled the windmill to the aerator and lowered it to the ground to install new blades.

Next, power storage had to be addressed. Both the windmill and solar panels are wired to a set of marine batteries that store the sun and wind power for (literally) a rainy (non-windy) day. The batteries are buried in the ground in a battery box to protect them from the elements. They had to be dug up and replaced due to fire damage. We found that, while the batteries and box may not have been doing their job of powering the aerator, they were providing a very nice, warm home to a family of mice that were wished well and relocated without being harmed.

Also buried in the ground was a compressor that provides air to the aerator. Once again using creativity, it was housed in a giant cooler retrofitted with air vents to keep the compressor from overheating. A new compressor was installed inside a new cooler, rewired, and reburied.

Melted air lines that ran from the compressor down to the lake were removed and new ones put in, which was challenging on the steep bank. All of the system’s electrical components were replaced and hooked back up.

And then, the moment of truth!

The power was switched on and the two aerator units in the lake started to bubble! Much relief!

WDFW’s crew completed the job just in time for the cold, dark weather to set in (although you couldn’t tell from these photos!).

These MacGyvers of the outdoors once again found a creative solution and have kept the fish of Z Lake safe for another year.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.