Soundings: Lakefair doesn't have much to do with Capitol Lake these days

Staff writerJuly 17, 2013 

Six-month-old Lincoln Chavis misses the view as his parents, Lisa and Jacob Chavis of Rio Vista, Calif., join dad Daniel Chavis of Olympia to enjoy the clear view over Capitol Lake, downtown Olympia, Budd Inlet and the Olympic Mountains from the Law Enforcement Memorial on the Capitol Campus on a sunny Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (TONY OVERMAN/Staff Photographer)

TONY OVERMAN — The Olympian Buy Photo

The 57th Annual Lakefair festival opened Wednesday under cloudy skies on the shore of a lake with a cloudy future. Capitol Lake used to be an integral part of the mid-summer celebration, home to water skiing competitions, sailboat races, swimming events, log rolling and water polo in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The fair and the lake used to fit together like a hand and a glove. Not anymore. The lake is in a state of prolonged neglect, choked with aquatic weeds and invasive species, including the New Zealand mud snail, which was discovered in October 2009, prompting a ban on all recreational use of the lake to avoid spread of the miniscule creation to other Puget Sound water bodies.

So far, the only non-chemical tool for killing the mud snails is to drain the lake and expose the self-cloning creatures to freezing winter weather. Those deep freezes in South Sound are few and far between, so it looks like the mud snail is winning the battle for control of the lake.

Come to Lakefair. Eat hamburgers and cotton candy. Ride the Ferris wheel. Listen to live music. But don’t as much as dip a toe in the water.

Each year on average, 35,000 cubic yards of sediment empties into the lake from the Deschutes River watershed. Due to environmental concerns, political controversy and a shortage of funds, there’s been no dredging in the lake since 1986, which means sediment roughly equivalent to 100,000 dump truck loads have entered the lake in the past 27 years.

In 2004, the United States Geological Survey evaluated the holding capacity of the lake. The south basin, south of Interstate 5, had lost 97 percent of its capacity. Today, it looks like a braided river channel, not a lake basin. The middle basin had lost 67 percent of its capacity and the north basin, a prominent feature in downtown Olympia, was reduced by 42 percent. Ten years later the volume of water in this dammed up section of the Deschutes River is even further diminished, turning the lake into a shell of its former self.

In 1966, a world class diver put on a quite a show for the Lakefair crowd, diving off the top of an 80-foot crane in water that measured eight feet deep. Try it today and a diver would probably break his neck in the shallow water.

The state Department of Enterprise Services just released yet another in an endless stream of Capitol Lake studies and reports.

This one looked at how long it would take to get a permit to dredge 100,000 cubic yards of sediment, equal amounts from the north and middle basins. The answer: three years. That’s the same length of time it will take for another 100,000 cubic yards of sediment to enter the lake.

The dredge spoils would probably be used to create more of a beach-like environment along the western shores of the north basin.

DES continues to tread the political waters of a very touchy lake management issue. Any dredging would be designed to keep both the lake and river estuary options alive indefinitely. The community remains sharply divided over the lake versus estuary debate, which has been going on for years with little action.

In fact doing nothing is a lake management decision all its own. Doing nothing turns the lake into a freshwater marsh.

It’s been easy to defer any long-range plan for the lake because of state budget woes. Politicians and bureaucrats can just keep saying the millions of dollars needed to take action to save the lake or restore the river estuary aren’t available.

The 2013-15 state budget approved three weeks ago by the Legislature contains no new money to advance a lake management decision. No money to go after a dredging permit, which, according to the latest study could cost $377,000 to $560,000 to obtain.

All Enterprise Services has to work with is $52,000 left over from the last biennium Capitol Lake appropriation. There is, however, some important language in the state capital budget bill directed at Enterprise Services. It calls on the state agency to prepare a long-term financing plan for maintenance dredging required either to maintain Capitol Lake or return it to a free-flowing river.

That’s the closest thing to lake management progress in a long time. The wording acknowledges, and rightfully so, that sediment management where the river meets Budd Inlet is the responsibility of public and private partners, including the state, the Port of Olympia, the private marinas, the Olympia Yacht Club and the City of Olympia with it’s Pericval Landing infrastructure.

I’m not sure what must happen to reach community consensus on how best to manage Capitol Lake. But let’s not kid ourselves:

It’s been decades since Lakefair was a true celebration of the lake.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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