Engineers prodded to delist estuary plan

The Army Corps of Engineers has been drawn into the Deschutes estuary vs. Capitol Lake debate as it studies potential restoration sites in Puget Sound.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been drawn into the Deschutes estuary vs. Capitol Lake debate as it studies potential restoration sites in Puget Sound. The Olympian

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is under pressure from Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, and Secretary of State Sam Reed to remove the Deschutes River and Capitol Lake from a study of proposed estuary restoration projects in Puget Sound.

Two community groups, the Capitol Lake Improvement and Protection Association and Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team, have also weighed in, with CLIPA opposed to the Corps study and DERT in favor of it.

At this early stage of the study, which is looking at 44 possible areas in Puget Sound to restore estuary and nearshore habitat, the Corps is not interested in pulling the plug on the Deschutes study, according to Bernie Hargrave, project manager for the Corps’ role in Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Projects.

Hargrave said the Corps is committed to looking at all the proposed projects to see which ones should be advanced for further study of cost and environmental benefits.

“This is not a decision point,” he said, adding that sometime in December the Corps will pare down the list of possible projects for more review. Full-blown technical review of surviving projects is at least a year away, he said.

Hargrave said the Corps is fully aware that the lake-versus-estuary debate is hotly contested in the Olympia community. However, he said, that’s not the Corps’ focus.

“We’re coming at this from a Puget Sound-wide perspective,” he said. “We’re trying to recover the health of all of Puget Sound.”

The Corps involvement in the Puget Sound study is critical because it is the federal agency that would apply for project authorization and funding from Congress.

In his Oct. 6 letter to Corps Seattle District Commander Anthony Wright, Hunt said the lake is part of the Capitol Campus and its fate is the purview of the state Legislature.

“It is overstepping the Corps’ authority to be involved in any type of study or evaluation of the area for any purpose other than working with the state Legislature to achieve purposed we have directed,” Hunt said in his letter.

“There is tremendous public support to maintain Capitol Lake as a lake, and to restore it as a more functional lake,” Hunt said.

In a similar letter Oct. 5, Reed emphasized that the lake is part of the Capitol Campus and shouldn’t be studied for possible estuary restoration without a request from the state Capitol Committee, which consists of Reed, Gov. Chris Gregoire, state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.

“We are not requesting such a study at this time,” Reed said.

Hargrave noted that the Corps has been working for years with various partners, including the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Puget Sound Partnership, Squaxin Island Tribe and state Department of Natural Resources, which Goldmark oversees, on the data base that lists the impounded Deschutes River — Capitol Lake — as a possible area for estuary recovery.

An Oct. 24 letter to the Corps colonel from the DERT pro-estuary group notes that Hunt’s opinion on the lake isn’t shared by everyone.

“Deschutes estuary restoration supporters are many,” said DERT president Sue Patnude and vice president Dave Peeler. “Puget Sound is indeed an icon of our state — there are few other places in the nation that can compare. And yet the state Capitol is the home of a dammed-up estuary that is polluted, full of invasive species and a public health hazard.”

A nine-member committee of state agencies, local governments and Squaxin Island Tribe recommended in a split decision last year that the lake be converted to an estuary.

The recommendation went to the state Department of General Administration, which, in turn, is expected at some point to recommend a course of action to the state Capitol Committee and state Legislature.

But the state budget crisis has all but derailed a decision in the near term. Instead, GA director Joyce Turner has asked for $500,000 in the state 2011-13 budget to try to secure permits for a partial dredging of the lake to capture some of the river sediment that is accumulating there.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444. jdodge@theolympian.com.