OLYMPIA – Decision time is drawing near for a Capitol Lake advisory committee that has spent more than five years and $1.7 million studying whether the lake should be turned back into a free-flowing Deschutes River estuary.
In late August, the nine-member Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan steering committee will make a recommendation to the state Department of General Administration, which manages the 260-acre man-made lake as part of the state Capitol Campus.
A final decision could be years away and be influenced by some combination of state legislative politics, availability of money, government permits and legal action.
“There’s a lot more that needs to happen after CLAMP makes its recommendation,” said Nathaniel Jones, a senior facilities planner for state General Administration.
Nevertheless, the fact that the steering committee is about to deliver a final report has drawn community interest, especially about the cornerstone issue of dredging and who pays.
Each year, about 35,000 cubic yards of sediments flush down the Deschutes River into the lake. The lake has been partly dredged twice in the past 30 years, which means it’s slowly but surely turning into a freshwater marsh with only about 40 percent of the water volume it had when it was created in 1951 as a reflecting pond for the Capitol.
Initial dredging costs for the estuary are pegged at $15.7 million to $22.8 million, compared with $74.3 million to $145.9 million to restore the lake, according to the steering committee studies. The cost difference is largely because much of the dredge spoils for the estuary wouldn’t leave the basin; they’d be used to reshape the estuary shorelines.
Studies also suggest that maintenance dredging for 50 years is cheaper for the estuary than the lake because of equipment and logistic costs in the lake compared with lower Budd Inlet, Jones said.
Friends of the Olympia Working Waterfront is a new group of lower Budd Inlet marina owners and others who challenge that assertion.
“As soon as it enters the inlet, it will be contaminated with dioxin,” said Bob Wubbena, whose family owns Fiddlehead Marina. It is one of six public and private marinas with about 500 boats moored in the lower west bay of Budd Inlet, the area where the river sediments likely would settle. “I can’t imagine it will be less expensive in an uncontained area such as Budd Inlet.”
If the costs of dredging – tens of millions of dollars over the next 50 years – are transferred to the marinas, it will bankrupt them, Wubbena said.
“We dredged here at our marina in 1985, and we just finished paying for it,” Wubbena said. “With an estuary, we might have to dredge every three to five years.”
The Port of Olympia is a CLAMP member, as are the state departments of General Administration, Fish and Wildlife, Ecology, and Natural Resources; the cities of Olympia and Tumwater; Thurston County; and the Squaxin Island Tribe.
The port commissioners likely will vote soon on a resolution that calls for more economic analysis of dredging costs and a cleanup of dioxin in Budd Inlet before any recommendation from CLAMP is turned into action, Port Commissioner Bill McGregor said.
With the lake gone, the port and the private marinas of lower Budd Inlet would face dredging costs of about $2 million per year, according to the resolution.
McGregor acknowledges that the lake has served as a sediment trap for the port and other marinas for years, reducing costs of maintaining the marinas, shipping channels and port cargo berths.
Some argue that it’s time to rethink who pays for dredging, whether it’s in the lake or in the estuary, turning it into a shared responsibility of the state, port, private marinas and others who benefit.
“Present to us some sort of partnership,” Wubbena offered.
It’s not yet known whether the CLAMP committee will address who should pay as part of its recommendation, Jones said.
Meanwhile, a new community group has formed to support re-creating the Deschutes River estuary; it’s called the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team, Olympia physician and founding member Paul Allen said.
The group is building a Web site and plans to be active in the weeks leading up to the CLAMP committee recommendation and beyond.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the benefits of an estuary,” Allen said.
“An estuary will provide much greater benefit to Puget Sound water quality and salmon than does Capitol Lake,” he said. “And maybe the stronger argument is that the cost of dredging is cheaper with an estuary.”
The lake-versus-estuary study and debate makes for a good classroom topic, South Bay Elementary School teacher Joan Dorian said. The 100 fifth-graders at the school have spent more than 10 hours studying and writing position papers, fueled by information they gained from field trips, guest speakers and classroom research.
A show of hands suggested that students assembled in the school gymnasium last week favor of an estuary over a lake by a 2-1 margin.
Two other options for the lake’s future are on the table: allowing the lake to fill in and turn into a freshwater estuary or building a causeway down the middle of the lake’s north basin to create estuary conditions on one side and the reflecting pond on the other.
Over Memorial Day weekend, General Administration posted nine informational signs around Capitol Lake that summarize key findings of all the studies to date. They include:
Water quality: Land-use activities throughout the watershed degrade water quality and add to sediment in the lake.
The activities include erosion from old logging roads and failing septic systems. An estuary or dual lake-estuary would improve oxygen levels in Budd Inlet, but overall water quality in the watershed requires shoreline-restoration work to improve shade and reduce erosion.
“What’s CLAMP’s plan for the rest of the watershed?” Wubbena asked. “Are they going to solve the sediment problem or dump it on us?”
Jones said Ecology studies show that the majority of the sediment comes from natural erosion processes in the watershed. Watershed restoration will be the responsibility of someone other than CLAMP, he said.
Flooding: Large floods that can threaten downtown Olympia are influenced more by the city’s limited stormwater system than whether the area is a lake or estuary. Sea-level rise in South Sound could play a larger role in flooding in the decades ahead, regardless of whether the lake is restored to an estuary.
Fish and wildlife: An estuary would be better for species such as salmon, sea-run cutthroat, raptors, shorebirds and others that thrive where saltwater mixes with freshwater. However, freshwater fish and insect-eating bats and birds prefer the lake.
Of the priority species in South Sound, 10 would benefit from having an estuary and four would benefit from having a lake, according to a state Fish and Wildlife report.
A CLAMP report that summarizes all the technical data collected so far is set to be released in mid-June, followed by a June 24 public open house and continued debate and discussion among CLAMP members about their recommendation.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444