Increased volcanic activity on Mount Baker, which began in March 1975, represents the greatest known activity of a Cascade Range volcano since eruptions at Lassen Peak, Calif. during 1914-17. Emissions of dust and increased emanations of steam, other gases, and heat from the Sherman Crater area of the mountain focused attention on the possibility of hazardous events, including lava flows, pyroclastic eruptions, avalanches, and mudflows. However, the greatest undesirable natural results that have been observed after one year of the increased activity are an increase in local atmospheric pollution and a decrease in the quality of some local water resources, including Baker Lake.
Baker Lake, a hydropower reservoir behind Upper Baker Dam, supports a valuable fishery resource and also is used for recreation. The lake's feedwater is from Baker River and many smaller streams, some of which, like Boulder Creek, drain parts of Mount Baker. Boulder Creek receives water from Sherman Crater, and its channel is a likely route for avalanches or mudflows that might originate in the crater area.
Boulder Creek drains only about 5 percent of the total drainage area of Baker Lake, but during 1975 carried sizeable but variable loads of acid and dissolved minerals into the lake. Sulfurous gases and the fumarole dust from Sherman Crater are the main sources for these materials, which are brought into upper Boulder Creek by meltwater from the crater. In September 1973, before the increased volcanic activity, Boulder Creek near the lake had a pH of 6.0-6.6; after the increase the pH ranged as low as about 3.5. Most nearby streams had pH values near 7. On April 29, in Boulder Creek the dissolved sulfate concentration was 6 to 29 times greater than in nearby creeks or in Baker River; total iron was 18-53 times greater than in nearby creeks; and other major dissolved constituents generally 2 to 7 times greater than in the other streams.
The short-term effects on Baker Lake of the acidic, mineral-rich inflow depend mainly on: (1) the rate of flow and the character of Boulder Creek water at the time; (2) the relative rate of inflow of the feedwater from other streams; and (3) whether the reservoir is temperature-stratified (summer) or homothermal (winter). A distinct layer of Boulder Creek water was found in the lake in September 1975 extending at least 0.3 miles (.5 km) downreservoir. The greatest opportunity for water from Boulder Creek to persist as a layer and extend farthest before mixing with the other reservoir water is when Baker Lake is strongly stratified and Boulder Creek flow rate is large in relation to other feedwater.
Baker Lake probably could assimilate indefinitely the acid loads measured during 1975, by dilution, chemical neutralization, and buffering of the acid-rich Boulder creek water. Minor elements found in Boulder Creek water included arsenic, selenium, and mercury; however, none of these would reach the limits recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for public water supplies unless their concentrations increased to several times the amounts found during this study. Under the prevailing conditions, acid-rich Boulder Creek water apparently cannot accumulate as a pool, or persist as a layer long enough to reach Upper Baker Dam and attack the concrete. However, even if the acid load from Boulder Creek does not greatly increase, occasional light fish mortalities may result near the mouth of the creek. Greater acid and mineral loads, resulting from further increases in volcanic activity or other possible causes, could be more harmful, especially to the fish. Continued monitoring of Boulder Creek flow and water quality is needed to rapidly any changes in conditions at Sherman Crater, and to provide warning of possible greater impacts on Baker Lake from any future increases in Mount Baker activity.