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Committee restarts work on Capitol Lake solution

A welcome break between weather systems bathes Capitol Lake in sunshine. The Department of Enterprise Services hosted a public meeting about the long-term management of Capitol Lake on Friday.
A welcome break between weather systems bathes Capitol Lake in sunshine. The Department of Enterprise Services hosted a public meeting about the long-term management of Capitol Lake on Friday. sbloom@theolympian.com

Stakeholders from the state and Thurston County have taken a symbolic first step toward resolving a debate over whether Capitol Lake in Olympia should remain a lake or revert back to an estuary.

Another option is a hybrid of both.

The 260-acre man-made reservoir on the Capitol Campus is owned and maintained by the state Department of Enterprise Services. In the 2015 budget, the Legislature directed the department to “make tangible progress” on a long-term management plan for Capitol Lake.

A committee of local and state officials met Friday to move forward on the Legislature’s directive. The collaboration includes the cities of Olympia and Tumwater, the Port of Olympia, Thurston County and the Squaxin Island Tribe.

The committee will meet throughout the year and submit a report on its findings in January 2017. The report will cover potential costs, public support and management options for Capitol Lake.

Water quality is a top concern. Before the lake was created as a reflecting pool in 1951, freshwater from the Deschutes River flowed directly into Budd Inlet and mixed with the salt water.

However, the lake holds about 60 percent less water than it did in 1951 and is turning into a marsh, according to the state.

Sediment from the river accumulates in the lake at a rate of about 35,000 cubic yards a year. Aside from causing a need for dredging, the sediment has caused a greater risk of flooding at the Fifth Avenue Dam, as well as problems with invasive species such as the New Zealand mud snail.

High levels of phosphorus and fecal coliform bacteria also harm the surrounding environment and wildlife.

Chris Liu, director of the Department of Enterprise Services, said a solution to the lake-estuary conundrum isn’t as simple as the state making a decision.

“We’re here at the behest of the community. We should be doing what the community wants,” Liu said Friday. “I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there’s a preordained outcome.”

The most desired outcome of these meetings, according to those at the table Friday, is a plan of action.

“I’m very concerned about the water quality violations,” Tumwater Mayor Pete Kmet said. “We’ve been talking about it long enough. It’s time to move forward.”

When and if the committee determines a course of action, the next goal would be to submit an environmental impact statement, which is a report that describes the positive and negative environmental effects of a particular project.

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby touched on the divisiveness of the lake-estuary debate and noted that the Olympia City Council has not taken a formal position. But the city is concerned about the potential impact on recreational opportunities and the local economy if the Fifth Avenue Dam were removed to make way for an estuary — considering the crucial east-west corridor that runs past the dam and connects downtown Olympia with the west side.

“The city does not want the lake to become a battle in the community that results in winners and losers,” said Selby, noting the city’s willingness to compromise in the name of a solution. “It’s pointless to have a slugfest.”

Check it out

The committee’s next meeting will be Feb. 26 at a time and location to be announced. The Department of Enterprise Services will solicit public input and make information from meetings available online.

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