In 1911, the designers of the state Capitol proposed creating a reflecting pond or lake below the Capitol, in the estuary of the Deschutes River. In 1937, the Legislature initiated action to create the lake. In 1951, the lake was finally created.
Now it seems as if making and implementing a decision about whether to preserve the state-owned lake or restore the Deschutes River estuary may take just as long.
In the meantime, the lake is filling up with sediment that comes down the Deschutes River. It is overdue for dredging, which is required periodically to keep it from becoming a marsh. It is afflicted with invasive species, including Eurasian milfoil and New Zealand mud snails, and has water quality problems from both upstream pollutants and stormwater outfalls from Olympia streets.
The Fifth Avenue dam keeps most of the sediments in the lake, though some are released into Budd Inlet. If the dam were removed, and all the sediments from the river flowed into Budd Inlet, the need for periodic dredging would move to the inlet. That would shift the cost of dredging from the state to the yacht club and the Port of Olympia.
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Decades of debate
The current debate about whether to remove the Fifth Avenue dam and restore the Deschutes River estuary has already been going on for more than two decades. A 12-year, multijurisdictional process produced the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan, which, on a divided vote, came down in favor of restoring the estuary, but passionate defenders of the lake, combined with legislative reluctance, resulted in no action being taken.
That process ended in 2009. Now another, similar process is underway. The current hope is that a multijurisdictional group, supported by scientists and studies from a variety of natural resource agencies and a great deal of citizen input, will tee up multiple options that can then be the subject of a formal Environmental Impact Study. That study — if funded by the Legislature next year — will take at least a year, and possibly longer to complete.
The options under study include keeping the lake, restoring the estuary, or adopting one of several hybrid plans to preserve a reflecting pond directly north of the capitol, but restore the estuary west of the reflecting pond. All of these options are expensive, but the option that might appeal to the most people — a hybrid option — now looks as if it will be the most expensive. And that option is still likely to have passionate, well-organized and active opponents.
Legislature must act
It will be up to the Legislature to make a decision about which option to choose. In the absence of a strong community consensus about which option is preferable, the Legislature’s most likely response will be to stall, possibly for a long time.
Lack of funding could be another cause for delay. There is some hope that if a decision is made to restore the estuary, the federal government would help. If the state decides to keep the lake and dredge it periodically to prevent it from filling up with sediment, the state would have to foot the entire bill. That, too, will be expensive because the dredged material will be contaminated and contain invasive species, making disposal difficult.
Another key factor is the treaty right of the Squaxin Island Tribe to fish in its historical “usual and accustomed places.” Federal courts have ruled that this includes the right not just to fish, but to actually catch fish. This means the state is obliged to protect salmon and their habitat, and that, in turn, means the state is obliged to implement whichever option best serves that goal.
For those of us who care about the health of Puget Sound and our beleaguered salmon, as well as the future of downtown Olympia, this is a confounding issue. There are vested interests at play, as well as competing values.
It’s an issue that makes us wish we were all better educated in science, so that we could make more discerning judgments about competing and contradictory claims. It’s tempting to throw up our hands and hope that better science education in our public schools will produce a generation competent to do so, since at this pace today’s fifth-graders may very well be voting and representing us in the Legislature before this problem is resolved.
But that won’t cut it. With every passing year, the lake is shallower and more polluted. Climate change and continuing population growth make saving both salmon and Puget Sound an urgent, uphill struggle. We need to pick up the pace, keep up the pressure and live up to the responsibility of solving this riddle sooner rather than later.