Lake, estuary debate is as hot as the summer sun

July 9, 2014 

As the summer heats up in South Sound, so does the years-long debate over whether or not to keep Capitol Lake or remove the Fifth Avenue Dam to allow the Deschutes River to flow freely.

The Thurston Chamber of Commerce, firmly in the pro-lake camp, heard on Wednesday a lake-friendly report from retired Evergreen State College marine sciences professor David Milne, who recently analyzed a voluminous technical report and computer model used by the state Department of Ecology to look at pollution loading in the Deschutes River, Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet.

The Ecology team of three professional engineers concluded that the Capitol Lake dam has a negative effect on Budd Inlet water quality, specifically reducing dissolved oxygen levels critical to marine life in lower Budd Inlet.

Milne comes to a far different conclusion about the lake and the dam. He said the two working in concert intercept and trap 50 percent to 90 percent of the nitrogen entering the lake from upstream on Deschutes River.

“Capitol Lake prevents some 27 metric tons of nitrate nitrogen from entering Budd Inlet every summer — a huge beneficial effect of Capitol Lake equivalent to the action of two LOTT (wastewater treatment) plants.” Milne said.

He also labeled all the violations of water quality standards in the lower inlet shown by the model as “mathematically microscopic and ecologically inconsequential.”

Ecology officials agree with Milne’s assessment that the aquatic plants in the lake do soak up nitrogen and store it in the lake. However, the plant growth in the lake discharges more organic carbon to Budd Inlet than would occur if the river flowed directly into Budd Inlet. And, according to Ecology, the organic carbon uses up oxygen as it decays, causing lower oxygen levels than a damless river would deliver.

“We absolutely stand behind our report and what we’ve published already,” Ecology environmental engineer Mindy Roberts said, adding that the dam has the single biggest impact on dissolved oxygen in southern Budd Inlet.

Confused by dueling science and cost estimates in the lake-estuary debate?. Don’t feel alone. The Capitol Lake Improvement and Protection Association (CLIPA) is fiercely passionate in its support for the lake option. The Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team is just as passionate about the value of an estuary.

As the 58th Annual Lakefair Festival looms on the horizon, and the lake keeps filling up with sediment, it’s hard to see an end to this debate in sight.

The state Department of Enterprise Services signed an interagency agreement with the William D. Ruckleshaus Center last month to try to bring some sense to this nearly 25-year community debate.

The center, named after a highly respected public servant and corporate leader, has offices at both the University of Washington and Washington State University. Its mission is to find answers to thorny public policy disputes by bringing warring parties together for dispute resolution.

A word of caution: The $60,876 contract doesn’t call for the Ruckleshaus Center to settle the argument and pick the lake or the estuary as the preferred option. All the center staff will do is decide if there is a path forward for the lake and estuary folks to find common ground to work on a lake or estuary management plan. History suggests this is mission impossible.

“For CLIPA and DERT, the deal breaker is the dam,” noted DERT executive director Sue Patnude. “Consensus is next to impossible.”

Both sides are crafting community and political agendas to gain support for their positions. CLIPA co-founnder Bob Wubbena said his group will press for public and private community leaders — not mid-level state bureaucrats — to work on a Deschutes Urban Watershed Plan for the area from Pioneer Park in Tumwater to Priest Point Park in Olympia.

He said the lake group and its supporters will lobby the 2015 state Legislature to finance a $10 million lake dredging project to remove lake sediments that need to be dredged regardless of which management option prevails.

DERT intends to hire a lobbyist to work the Legislature on behalf of dam removal and a future estuary, Patnude said.

A final report from the Ruckleshaus House center is due back to the state in December, just before the Legislature convenes.

And Lakefair kicks off Wednesday on the shores of a lake of prolonged neglect, off limits to public use due to the presence of the New Zealand mud snail.

John Dodge: 3690-754-5444

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