Olympia needs Capitol Lake as a sacred, special place for city

November 24, 2010 

Most days, I drive by Capitol Lake at least once and often pause to stroll in Marathon Park. I never pass without wondering what will be its fate.

At its best, such as on a clear day, when the lake’s ripples reflect the grandeur of the statehouse, or on a gloomy night when the twinkling lights on the railroad trestle seem to reassure me on my way home, it fills a niche in our community’s soul that is unique to Olympia.

At its worst, though, the lake just seems sick. There are no kayakers, anglers, children splashing, or dogs playing fetch in the water. Instead, the lake in summer is choked with algae, smells rancid, and looks like dishwater. … and that’s not even mentioning those little menaces from New Zealand that thrive there. Those “Lake is Closed Until Further Notice” signs along its shore seem like cries for mercy.

When I moved to Olympia, I learned that to merely express curiosity about the lake is to invite a harangue from, one on hand, the “managed lake” proponents, and on the other, “estuary restoration” advocates. Respectively, these would be the Capitol Lake Improvement and Protection Agency and the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team. I see virtue in both arguments.

Certainly, I appreciate how Capitol Lake serves as a visible expression of our community’s cultural, historical and spiritual values. It provides a beautiful, meditative location in the heart of the city. I have no disagreement with those who contend that Olympia needs this as sacred space.

I do fault those favoring the estuary option for not putting forward an equally compelling vision of how natural wetlands would satisfy similar aesthetic needs. Many people equate an estuary with a fetid quagmire, and while that might be lovely to a frog, few barefoot picnickers will want to roll out a blanket there. Wouldn’t a healthy estuary present an altered, but no less inspiring vista with ample recreational opportunities?

Fundamentally, though, the body of research leads me to the inevitable conclusion that science favors the estuary solution. From an environmental standpoint, studies indicate that the lake’s current biological populations can’t be sustained, but natural estuarine habitats and ecological systems will respond to a restored condition.

In the natural order, there would be a mixing of fresh water and saltwater in the tidal flats, so that the exotic, freshwater species in the lake now would be supplanted by indigenous ones. Remember last winter when the lake was drained, then filled with salt water to combat the New Zealand mud snails? That’s a strong argument for letting nature do the job. This daily flow of the tides would also be a first step toward improving water quality.

Their other technical issue involves engineering, and dredging will be necessary in any scenario. The main issues are how much, how often, and who will pay for it. While disputed, most long-term estimates prefer estuary restoration, too.

Across Washington, planners and scientists are undertaking large projects to revive natural environments. Tides flow through the Nisqually estuary once again. The Elwha Dam will be removed. The Army Corps of Engineers’ Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Projects study is likely to recommend, as did the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan steering committee, that the Deschutes Estuary be set right.

Still, while science and symbolism are both important, I fear that the fate of Capitol Lake will be decided by inertia or short-term economics, and as time passes and nothing is done, the status quo will have prevailed by default.

The very concept of a “managed ecosystem” sounds like an oxymoron. To the decision makers, I offer the words of Francis Bacon: “Nature, to be controlled, must be obeyed.”

Gregg Sapp, a freelance writer in Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. His first novel, “Dollarapalooza,” will be published next spring by Switchgrass Books of Northern Illinois University Press. He can be reached at sappgregg@aol.com.

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