Question of Capitol Lake’s fate put before public

A trio of river otters pops up among the seasonal algae floating on Capitol Lake in February 2015.
A trio of river otters pops up among the seasonal algae floating on Capitol Lake in February 2015. Staff file, 2015

A committee of state and Thurston County stakeholders will seek public comments next month on whether Capitol Lake in Olympia should remain a lake, revert to an estuary or become a hybrid of both.

The public is invited to an open house from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 9 at the state Department of Enterprise Services, 1500 Jefferson St. SE.

At its second meeting Friday, the committee reviewed the basic steps to complete the first phase of a long-term management plan for the 260-acre state-owned Capitol Lake.

To complete the first phase, the Legislature has requested the group do the following:

▪ Identify the best available scientific information about water quality and wildlife habitat as it relates to the removal or retention of the Fifth Avenue Dam.

▪ Identify multiple options for a hybrid solution, including general cost estimates for construction and maintenance.

▪ Identify the range of public support or concerns for each option.

▪ Identify the degree of support for shared funding among local, state and federal entities.

▪ Identify options for long-term shared governance of a future management plan. This includes identifying activities that could affect a management deal such as sediment and flood mitigation.

The committee’s goal is to submit a final report of its findings by January 2017. The next step would involve preparations for an environmental impact study, which is required before any permits are issued. That phase could last well into 2020, according to the committee.

The Legislature has appropriated $250,000 toward the management plan. Chris Liu, director of the Department of Enterprise Services, noted that the appropriation is simply an approval to spend the money. The actual funding for the environmental impact statement will come after the committee addresses the Legislature’s initial requests.

The committee is represented by the cities of Olympia and Tumwater, the Port of Olympia, Thurston County and the Squaxin Island Tribe. Some committee members at Friday’s meeting agreed with Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby’s suggestion to meet more often to “get this done.”

Capitol Lake is at the mouth of the Deschutes River, where the river meets Budd Inlet. It has long generated concerns about pollution, flooding and invasive species. Before the lake was created in 1951, the freshwater river flowed directly into Budd Inlet, where it mixed with the salt water and created a mudflat estuary.

The lake is turning into a marsh and holds 60 percent less water than it did in 1951, according to the state. Dredging is required because of the sediment that accumulates in the lake, especially at the dam.

Some who support turning Capitol Lake back into a free-flowing estuary say the setup is better for water quality and wildlife, including salmon. People on the pro-lake side say that a lake is cheaper to maintain, and that if the dam comes down, river sediment will clog lower Budd Inlet and become costly to dredge.