Before leaving office last month, Olympia mayor Stephen Buxbaum left behind suggestions for his successors at City Hall concerning Capitol Lake and the Deschutes River. Some might feel he packed up the easy stuff and left behind a live grenade.
In a letter to his colleagues and affected state agencies, Buxbaum said it is time to create a plan to eventually convert the man-made lake, fed by the Deschutes, into a free flowing estuary that empties into Puget Sound.
Rather than keeping a dam between the lake and bay, he suggests a different, lower barrier to deal with tides. Importantly, he says a government agency — perhaps the regional LOTT sewer agency — should take over management of the entire Deschutes watershed, including dredging the silt deposits that are steadily filling Capitol Lake and will turn it eventually into a marsh.
Lastly, Buxbaum suggested that the Olympia City Council should finally take a stand in favor of an estuary option, a position that state government agencies and the Squaxin Island Tribe have backed in the past during an exhaustive study of the issue during 1997-2009 by the state and local governments.
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Traditionalists who grew up with the lake and fear an estuary might stink have always pushed back fiercely on that idea, but Buxbaum says some kind of reflecting pool is still possible with an estuary. He wants a solution that also protects the Port of Olympia and marinas from harm.
Buxbaum is right in at least one respect: The troubled lake needs a solution and getting permits for repetitive lake dredging is a tall order (the last maintenance dredging was in 1986).
He’s also right that a broader governance structure may be needed to manage the lake that currently is owned by the state and managed by its Department of Enterprise Services.
In recognition of this need, Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County prodded legislators last year to put language in the state capital budget that requires the Enterprise Services to convene an outreach process this year that builds on past work that studied the lake-estuary quandary. DES must develop plans and options by January 2017 to manage the lake or convert it to a full or partial estuary.
The lake-estuary issue has divided and perplexed our community for years, and Buxbaum, a one term mayor, said it was something he had hoped to tackle sooner. But the shooting of two black men by an Olympia police officer in May took his time and attention in another direction.
Fraser said Buxbaum’s letter is constructive. She believes the time has arrived for our community to decide the lake’s future, which could include a hybrid approach with an estuary and a portion of the basin kept as a freshwater lake.
Although she has not committed to any one option, time is running out, she says.
There are water pollution problems, an increasingly silted lake that is on its way to becoming a marsh, flooding risks that grow worse over time, invasive species that thrive in the freshwater and an aging dam structure that separates the waters of the Deschutes from Puget Sound.
All of these are costly legacies of a lake created by the state in 1951 with the installation of a dam at Fifth Avenue in an era far too blind to environmental impacts.
“The do-nothing alternative is not a very good alternative. The lake is getting shallow. It will get shallower and shallower and won’t hold much water. So you’ll have more risk of flooding downtown,” Fraser noted.
Fraser said some scientific findings remain in dispute and need to be resolved. But she also warned that the Legislature won’t keep paying for studies that don’t lead to a solution supported by a community consensus.
That is why Olympia City Council members — and their counterparts in Tumwater, on the Port of Olympia and on the Thurston County Commission — need to turn their attention to this issue in 2016. Another key party is the Squaxin Island Tribe, which wants an estuary to protect fish runs.
Our city has been deeply divided on the issue for far more than a decade, and new Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby was elected with support from both the lake and estuary camps. Though Selby hasn’t taken a firm position on the lake and estuary options, or a two-basin compromise, she says her gut tells her that the dam along Fifth Avenue must go away eventually.
Realistically, Selby says, the lake problems could take 20 years to completely resolve.
It’s hard in our view to envision a good solution that doesn’t include some version of an estuary.
As our new year unfolds, our community needs to move beyond thinking about this problem and starting on a plan to fix it.