Lake-estuary impasse will be tough to break

Capitol Lake sits at the center of a years-long debate over a complex public policy issue in Olympia: Should it remain a lake, or be restored as an estuary?

A new report says collaboration among key players is the best way to find a solution for managing the 260-acre man-made reservoir.

However, collaboration will be difficult at best with the estuary camp wanting the Fifth Avenue Dam removed and the lake supporters wanting it to stay, the report went on to say.

The two groups’ dueling science and financial cost estimates for the lake-estuary options are other barriers to collaboration.

A neutral facilitator respected by both lake and estuary advocates will be needed, if talks between the key parties are to bear any fruit, the report added.

Capitol Lake was created in 1951 as a reflecting pool for the Capitol. However, the lake keeps filling up with sediment from the Deschutes River at a rate of about 35,000 cubic yards a year. The sediment accumulates at the Fifth Avenue Dam and causes problems with water quality, flood risks and invasive species. The area was previously an estuary where fresh water from the river mixed with the saltwater of Budd Inlet.

The lake is owned and maintained by the state. Dredging has been proposed as one way to restore the lake’s health and prevent it from becoming a freshwater marsh.

However, Olympia leaders want more authority and input to address the lake’s impact on the environment and local economy.

To help break the impasse, the state Department of Enterprise Services hired the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to conduct an assessment of the lake’s management. The center bills itself as “a neutral resource for collaborative problem solving” and is a joint effort between University of Washington and Washington State University.

The center presented its findings at a meeting Thursday on the Capitol Campus between the State Capitol Committee and the Capitol Campus Design Advisory Committee.

From August through November, the center’s staff interviewed 44 people from a range of backgrounds. Participants included local and state elected officials, city staff, everyday citizens and leaders of non-profit organizations.

Chris Page, project leader with the center, said interview participants generally agreed on upholding environmental values such as good water quality, healthy fish and wildlife habitat, long-term sediment management and cost-sharing measures.

The center recommends that stakeholders develop a “hybrid solution” that incorporates lake and estuary features into its design.

“Most expressed some optimism for a collaborative process,” said Page, noting that the assessment is only a guide for moving forward. “One theme we heard over and over again is that someone needs to step up and make a decision.”

Another recommendation calls for a third-party, scientific review of a state Department of Ecology computer model that concludes the dam and lake impair Budd Inlet water quality. Lake advocates have challenged Ecology’s findings, but Ecology officials have stood by their study.

Respondents offered varying views on how to best maintain the lake’s aesthetics while boosting its recreational value, Page said. However, the center reports that people are still polarized over topics including dam removal, long-term management costs and the effect on downtown businesses.

Money is also an issue. Some interviewees expressed support for establishing a tax district or local funding mechanism for lake management, Page said.

“Whatever long-term management option is chosen will cost money that is not available,” Page said. “Federal funding may be available depending on the path forward.”

Names on the assessment’s interview list included Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum, Tumwater Mayor Pete Kmet, Thurston County Commissioners Sandra Romero and Karen Valenzuela, Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, District 22 State Reps. Sam Hunt and Chris Reykdal and District 22 State Sen. Karen Fraser.

Buxbaum said the long-term solution should be based on long-term management of the entire Deschutes Watershed, and not just Capitol Lake.

“My own personal imperative is to try to bring people together,” Buxbaum told The Olympian. “The city of Olympia has some limited influence, but no authority over what happens with the lake. That’s why it’s really important for me to try and focus on solutions that are going to be the most durable.”

The center’s report will be fact-checked and finalized by Dec. 19, according to staff. The Department of Enterprise Services will then post the report online. The department has also requested $350,000 for the next biennium to pursue recommendations from the center’s report.

Michael Kern, director of the Ruckelshaus Center, said Thursday that any type of timeline for progress is difficult to narrow down. Kern referred to a quote about such projects where the desired criteria is “fast, cheap and good” and you can pick two of those criteria, “but you can’t have all three.”