No clear winner in the first-ever, lake-estuary debate

Capitol Lake supporters squared off Wednesday in the first ever debate with the group that wants to remove the Fifth Avenue Dam in downtown Olympia to allow the Deschutes River to flow freely. There was no clear winner.

The two firmly entrenched camps shared the podium at the LOTT Clean Water Alliance conference room for a fast-paced hour of give and take that was part of the environment day agenda for the 32 members of the 2015 class of Leadership Thurston County.

The class sponsored by the Thurston County Chamber Foundation consists of promising young community leaders, who, if they’re lucky, might see the future of the lake decided sometime before they retire.

It didn’t happen for me: After more than 30 years of reporting on Capitol Lake management issues, I’ll be retiring from The Olympian next week, still unsure what will happen to the lake, which is filling up with river sediment and holds roughly 60 percent less water than it did when it was formed in 1951.

I felt completely comfortable in my role as debate moderator Wednesday for a couple of reasons. I have friends and longtime news sources entrenched in both camps. And I still need more information before I can reach my own opinion on the right thing to do — leave the dam in place or take it out. I’m not alone in my conflicted views.

“I came to the debate without any strong opinion in favor of the lake or the estuary,” noted Bob Heck, 2015 Leadership Thurston County class member, wealth adviser with Kelly Juergens Wealth Management LLC and son of Congressman Denny Heck, D-Olympia. “I learned a lot from the debate, but I still don’t have a preference for a lake or estuary.”

Heck and I agree that the scientific evidence in support of a lake or estuary is as muddy as the Deschutes River flow during a winter storm. The cost estimates for the two options are murky as well. The water quality pros and cons of a lake versus an estuary are hard to decipher, too.

The pro-lake people argue that Capitol Lake is one of the cleanest lakes in Thurston County, providing a net benefit to Budd Inlet. Studies prepared by the state Department of Ecology suggest otherwise.

“It would be great to have a third party, objective review of the issue,” said Rae McNally, a class member and deputy communications director for the state Department of Commerce. Her previous job was with the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency charged with overseeing Puget Sound cleanup and protection, including estuary restoration projects.

She noted that dam removal would pose complications for the Port of Olympia and lower Budd Inlet marinas, which would have to deal with sediment currently trapped behind the dam. At the same time, the long-term maintenance of the lake is a big issue, too.

“How many times can you dredge a lake over and over and over?” asked Sue Patnude, co-founder of the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team. “It’s a huge public policy contradiction to have a dammed up river in the state capitol.”

The CLIPA folks point to the lake as an integral part of the state Capitol Campus, envisioned by campus architects more than 100 years ago.

It’s been six years since the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan committee, representing local governments, state natural resource agencies and the Squaxin Island Tribe voted on a split decision in favor of an estuary after 12 years and millions of dollars of studies. For political and financial reasons, the recommendation was never forwarded to the Capitol Committee, a group of state elected officials, or the Legislature. Meanwhile, the lake hasn’t been dredged since 1987 and fills up with about 35,000 cubic yards of sediment per year.

“We need some leadership from the city of Olympia and the state Capitol Committee,” CLIPA co-founder Bob Wubbena said. “The CLAMP studies were incomplete, and the community is confused.”

The lake and estuary camps have conducted informal meetings four times since February, but have agreed not to meet again until the Legislature passes a 2015-17 budget. The House has $100,000 in its capital budget to spend on Capitol Lake management planning, but that wouldn’t move the ball much. The Senate has $250,000 in its capital budget proposal with very ambitious goals that include retaining a portion of the north lake while improving estuary conditions and fish habitat at the same time. The budget proviso also calls for improved water quality and expanded recreation, shared governance and a cost-sharing plan, all due to the state Capitol Committee and state Legislature by Nov. 1, 2017.

Given the track record on Capitol Lake management, that’s a tall order indeed.