Twenty-eight lights illuminate the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink, but they are rarely used all at once. File photo by Don Nelson

Twenty-eight lights illuminate the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink, but they are rarely used all at once. File photo by Don Nelson

By Ann McCreary

In response to concerns expressed by a local resident about “light pollution” from the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink (WISR), Winthrop town officials will create a committee to explore possible solutions.

An email sent to the Winthrop Town Council last week by Lynette Westendorf prompted town officials to move toward developing a “working group or committee” to consider concerns about the impact of rink lights on the nighttime sky, said town planner Rocklynn Culp.

Westendorf said she has a longstanding interest in protecting nighttime skies, and is a member of the International Dark Skies Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating unnecessary lighting and preserving dark nighttime skies.

Directors of the ice rink are also exploring ways to respond to concerns about the rink lighting, said Jill Calvert, WISR board president. At a meeting Monday (Feb. 10), the board approved a resolution stating that “as proponents of the dark skies, WISR will continue to explore options to decrease light pollution at our facility with the resources we have available.”

Calvert said rink managers are researching the possibility of changing the angle of the lighting fixtures to decrease horizontal lighting and glare. They are also looking into using only two lights, out of a possible 28, when staff is making ice at night.

WISR researched the possibility of installing shields over the lights to reduce glare and prevent light from traveling upward, but it was determined that wind would catch the shields and damage the fixtures, Calvert said.

“It is good this issue has come up as it keeps WISR focused on our goal to keep the rink lighting at a minimum level, yet still be safe for our users, and also to turn the lights off as soon as programs and events are over,” Calvert said Tuesday (Feb. 11). “We have been diligent regarding this practice.”

WISR is currently involved in a campaign to raise $312,000 to match a $497,000 state grant to install refrigeration under the existing rink. The grant from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) will also fund a storage shed and an extension on the existing building for expanded office and rental space, changing areas and public restrooms.

Last week Westendorf sent an email to the RCO, suggesting that improvements to the “offensive” rink lighting be included in the agency’s grant to WISR. Westendorf also sent the email to Winthrop’s town council and mayor, and to WISR.

Westendorf, who lives west of Winthrop off Wolf Creek Road, said she’s been concerned about the light from the rink since it was first built. “I had heard that the ice rink was going to get upgraded and thought, ‘Great, maybe this will be a chance to do something about the lights,’” Westendorf said.

“I don’t want to jeopardize their fundraising campaign. My issue is, they can do better with the lights,” Westendorf said. “They need to figure out a way to point them downward, rather than horizontally.”

Westendorf received a response from the RCO stating that because lighting was not included in the original grant proposal, it can’t be added to the current grant. However, the town could apply for a grant to improve rink lighting, said Scott Robinson, RCO deputy director.

The rink is equipped with 28 lights, mounted in arrays of four lights on tall poles. “The most we normally ever use is 12,” Calvert said. “There are only two times in my known history we have ever used all 28 lights.”

One of those occasions was a recent three-day youth hockey tournament, which drew five teams and hundreds of spectators to the rink during the last weekend of January.

The lights were needed during the tournament, Calvert said, “because these are elite teams and the puck is traveling fast. They have to have the lights for safety.”

Calvert said low clouds and an inversion during the tournament reflected the lights and intensified their effect.

The rink lights are programmed to go off at 8:30 p.m. each night after events at the rink end. During the tournament the hours were extended until about 9:30 p.m., but only 12 lights were used during the last hour, Calvert said.

When ice rink employees are making ice after hours at night, four lights have been used, Calvert said. “We’ll see if we can reduce to two lights and still have them be able to see what they’re doing,” she said.

WISR board members have researched possible ways to improve lighting and consulted with David Gottula, manager of Okanogan County Electric Cooperative. The co-op last year retrofitted about 100 lights owned by the company around the valley with new “dark sky” compliant fixtures that point light downward to reduce impacts on the night sky.

WISR consulted a lighting expert in Seattle, who estimated it would cost a minimum of $60,000 to install new fixtures that meet dark sky standards, Calvert said.

Culp said she looked back through the town’s complaint log and found no complaints regarding the ice rink lights, although several complaints have been registered regarding the brightness of town lights along the street next to the Barn auditorium on Highway 20.

Because of the concerns raised by Westendorf, the town will work to put together a group of people interested in the issue of light pollution “to do some of the research and come up with some proposals,” Culp said.

“What I’m hoping will come out of this working group or committee is enough accurate information about techniques, or fixtures, or ways of approaching it that would be effective. Then we can look at it and see if there is a way to fundraise or if there are grants available,” Culp said. “The town owns the facility so really we’re ultimately responsible.”