A committee charged with helping to shape the future of Capitol Lake lined up Thursday squarely in favor of turning it back into the Deschutes River estuary after five years and $1.7 million worth of study and debate.
Six of the nine members of the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan steering committee voiced support for removing the Fifth Avenue Dam and letting the 250-acre man-made lake revert to tideflats.
Two members, the Port of Olympia and Tumwater, were less enthusiastic but still open to the idea of an estuary and a third, the state Department of General Administration, didn’t take a position because the committee recommendation will go to GA Director Linda Villegas Bremer in August for her review.
Support for the estuary option came from Thurston County, Olympia, the Squaxin Island tribe and the state departments of Natural Resources, Ecology, and Fish and Wildlife.
The three state agencies set the tone for the half-day retreat in Tumwater when they delivered a letter to the committee signed by all three agency directors.
“The opportunity here is to convert a failing, unhealthy lake into a major restoration project at the base of south Puget Sound,” the letter concluded.
Five years ago, the CLAMP committee was evenly split on the fate of the lake, which was created as both an extension of the state Capitol Campus and a sediment holding pond in 1951. But two key things happened:
• A series of scientific studies showed that is cheaper to create an estuary and maintain it for 50 years – at a cost of $221 million – than it is a lake, which would cost more than $300 million. The estuary reduces some of the water-quality problems that plague the lake and lower Budd Inlet. The estuary also provides habitat for a greater variety of fish and wildlife.
• Key political players involved in the decision have changed over time, including county commissioners, Olympia City Council members and the state lands commissioner.
The estuary option is far from a done deal. It will need political and financial support from GA, the state Capitol Committee, the state Legislature and the federal government to move forward. Even if it’s approved along the way, it could take years to accomplish.
“This marks an important milestone,” Squaxin Island tribal representative Jeff Dickison said. “But there’s still work to be done.”
In addition, the lake has strong public support in the Olympia community, especially among residents who enjoy the aesthetics of the lake, those who don’t like the smell of mudflats and boaters who moor their boats in lower Budd Inlet who will see an increased load of sediment from the river if the dam is removed.
“We really don’t know what will happen when you take the dam out,” said Jim Legenfelder, an Olympia Yacht Club member and estuary critic.
“Aesthetics is a tough issue,” conceded Ecology committee member Sally Toteff. However, she said, even an estuary would be covered with water about 70 percent of the time.
All of the CLAMP members agreed that the cost of dredging sediments that have been piling up in the lake and will continue to travel down the river should be a shared responsibility.
“We realize the port and marinas can’t fork out millions and millions of dollars to manage sediments,” DNR’s Todd Welker said.
Olympia City Council member Joe Hyer said the state agencies’ unified support for an estuary swayed him to return to his uncommitted council and recommend the city join the estuary camp.
“Five years ago I was in the lake camp,” he said. “But you can’t have water quality in a managed lake. That pushes us to an estuary option.”
The county commissioners voted 2-1 recently to support the estuary, with Commissioner Cathy Wolfe backing the lake, Commissioner Karen Valenzuela said.
The Tumwater City Council voted 4-3 in support of the lake. But council members might be willing to reconsider their position as long as their major concerns, including protection of the old Olympia brewhouse and Tumwater Historical Park and an equitable sharing of dredging costs, are addressed, said Neil McClanahan, CLAMP committee chairman and a Tumwater City Council member who supports the estuary option.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444