I walked around the dewatered Capitol Lake on my lunch break the other day, joining dozens of other walkers and joggers, some of whom were curious if the powers that be had already decided to turn the lake back into the Deschutes River estuary.
No, the state Department of General Administration didn’t suddenly and capriciously do away with Capitol Lake. And no, this wasn’t some nefarious plot to tilt public opinion in favor of keeping the lake.
It’s true that this past week’s drawdown of the lake level to accommodate a water and sewer line replacement project on Deschutes Parkway was even more dramatic and revealing than the one that occurred during Capitol Lakefair festivities July 17-21.
The lake hadn’t been dewatered like this since 2002 when Deschutes Parkway was rebuilt to repair the damage from the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake.
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At low tide Wednesday afternoon, what is normally the lake’s middle basin — the area between Interstate 5 and Marathon Park — mirrored what the estuary would look like at low tide if the Fifth Avenue Dam were removed.
The Deschutes River flowed lazily through a channel that zig-zagged through the middle of mudflats interrupted by the occasional pool of brackish water and bleached out log debris swept downstream during winter storms years ago.
It’s been 15 years since the state halted the practice of drawing it down in the summer after Lakefair to back flush it with saltwater to kill aquatic weeds.
Whether you are pro-lake or pro-estuary, this week has been a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of what an estuary would look like.
Granted, the daily tidal fluctuations found in estuaries – the places where rivers meet the sea – have been blocked at the Fifth Avenue Dam tide gates. So what we’ve had this week is low tide all the time.
We’ve also had enough hot weather to put the mudflats in the middle basin to the smell test. Is it as stinky and smelly as old-timers remember from the days before the damn river was dammed?
A northeast wind swept across the mudflats, blowing right in my face as I stood on one of the docks that extend from the shoreline at the southern end of the middle basin. I smelled a musty, salty odor, but nothing I found offensive.
Could it be that much of the repugnant odors from the pre-lake days had more to do with human and industrial waste than they did anything else? Olympia can take some pride in having the first wastewater sewage treatment plant in the Puget Sound basin. But it wasn’t operating until 1952, one year after the lake was formed.
I also watched as nearly 100 male mallards sunned themselves on a muddy sand spit that split the river flow in two just northwest of the freeway overpass. Along the shoreline near the Capitol Interpretive Center, cedar waxwings flitted from tree to tree, looking for berries, swallows hunted for aerial insects and Canada geese dotted the mudflats.
Take away the Capitol, the freeway and a smattering of shoreline homes and it isn’t hard to imagine a July day in 1841 when the U.S. Exploring Expedition under Lt. Commander Charles Wilkes paid a visit to the Deschutes River estuary, marveling at the cool, pleasant pool of water beneath Deschutes Falls. Here’s Wilkes’ account, in his own words:
“After forming our encampment and discharging the boats I dispatched Lt.B (Lt. Thomas Budd) and Md. Eld (Midshipman Henry Eld) to begin the Survey, the head of this inlet or arm is very shoal for some distance from its head & has an extensive mud flat with a channel of 20 to 30 feet in width with water enough for a boat at low water.”
While down at the interpretive center, I talked with Missy Gordon, a Lacey woman who arrived at the shoreline on a motor scooter, camera in hand. Unlike so many in the community, Gordon is ambivalent about the lake’s future.
“I just wanted to get some pictures of this,” she said of the waterless lake. “I don’t know if it’s better or worse. I think people would still walk and jog around it — where else can they go?”
Brian Dirks slowed down long enough on his noon hour, five-mile jog around the lake to weigh in on the lake-estuary debate.
“I wouldn’t like it if the estuary smelled, but it’s not a problem today,” he said.
Other passers-by eyed the mudflats with disgust, suggesting this week’s drawdown would turn the tide of public option against the estuary option.
Aesthetics are clearly in the eye of the beholder.
The dewatered lake started filling up again Thursday night, but not before bat enthusiasts sounded an alarm about the poor timing of the drawdown.
This is the time of summer when thousands of nursing mother bats from Woodard Bay converge on the lake at night to feed on lake insects. Imagine their surprise to find a dried up lake. It’s also when juvenile bats venture from their Woodard Bay roost to start feeding on their own.
“They couldn’t have picked a worse time to do this,” noted Olympia bat ecologist Greg Falxa.
Whether the lake drawdown was a mortal blow to hundreds, if not thousands, of bats may not be known until next year, if ever.
Stay tuned, the lake versus estuary saga just keeps rolling along like, um, the Deschutes River.