It’s never too early to lobby lawmakers, so here’s our wishlist for Thurston County

The Interstate 5 bridges over the Nisqually River serve as a dam that causes problems for the estuary and its fish.
The Interstate 5 bridges over the Nisqually River serve as a dam that causes problems for the estuary and its fish. Olympian file photo

We welcome legislators and their staff to Olympia for what will surely be a long and arduous budget-writing session. We’re proud to be the capital city, not only because the capitol is beautiful and the legislators patronize our restaurants, but because it’s so handy for us to lobby them on all our local issues.

Heaven knows we have issues: Lacey, Tumwater, Olympia, and Thurston County each have legislative wish lists, as well as a list of shared priorities.

Some of the city priorities are purely local. For instance, Tumwater is asking for funding to restore the 1906 brewery tower and to preserve a historic cemetery; Lacey wants money for a museum and civic center. All our local governments support a $4 million request for a regional first responder training center. And there are a host of other important requests that certainly deserve attention during this 105-day session.

But right out of the gate, we see two issues merit immediate discussion.

First, we are very sad to see that among all our local jurisdictions, only Olympia’s wish list calls for more state resources to address homelessness, mental health, and addiction. Tumwater and Thurston County say not a single word on these topics. Lacey’s wish list includes, as item six on a six-item list, a request for legislative permission to use local bond funds to invest in affordable housing, but doesn’t mention homelessness.

This is symptomatic of the perception that the problem of homelessness is Olympia’s alone, and not a regional problem. The lack of local support from Olympia’s neighbors on this issue is indefensible.

All our local cities are affected by homelessness, and all are subject to the federal 9th Circuit Court’s ruling that forbids them from evicting tent camps from public property unless they have indoor shelter beds available. This court order places the heaviest financial burden for alleviating homelessness on the smallest units of government with the least resources. Surely all local municipalities and the county should be part of a loud chorus calling for more state help to comply with the court’s decision.

A second issue that deserves a higher profile is a request for $4.5 million in the state transportation budget to take the next steps for upgrading the I-5 corridor from Dupont through Tumwater. This is supported by the Nisqually Tribe, Lacey, and Thurston County.

The most critical stretch of freeway runs through the Nisqually Valley, where I-5 acts as a huge dam across the Nisqually and McAllister Creek estuary. The freeway bridge across the Nisqually River restricts it to a narrow, unnatural channel. In the past, this constriction in the river has caused big floods upstream from the freeway. But as the river bends and changes course upstream, the next big flood may actually undermine the freeway and wash some or all of it away on the Pierce County side of the bridge.

By damming the estuary, the freeway also contributes to the starvation of endangered orcas. According to David Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Tribe, increasing runs of South Sound Chinook salmon is the second highest priority for saving resident orcas.

The Nisqually Tribe has invested decades of effort in restoring their Chinook population. But as the sea level begins to rise, saltwater is flowing further into the estuary, reducing this critical habitat. Freeing the river from its narrow channel and allowing it to spread out is the only way this habitat can be saved. Freeing the rivers to meander is also vital to the continual renewal of the estuary with sediment from upstream.

The solution is to lift the freeway on pilings – to make it, in effect, a causeway over the valley floor. This is, to be sure, an expensive undertaking, but in the context of planning upgrades that will likely include more lanes, the state is already looking at a very big price tag. And as we look at the cost and extent of recent freeway construction through Tacoma, this project doesn’t seem out of scale.

In the past two years, initial planning has been financed by a half million dollars in state funding, supplemented by $150,000 from the Nisqually Tribe and $50,000 from the Thurston Regional Planning Council. The next step is more detailed design work and environmental assessment. If this could be included in the state transportation budget in the next biennium, it might be possible to begin construction in the biennium that follows.

The Nisqually Tribe and its many partners have worked hard to restore the Nisqually watershed and its salmon habitat. Troutt points out that this freeway project could become a model for the future reconfiguration of I-5 crossings of other rivers – and over time, a big contributor to the restoration of salmon, improved prospects for orca recovery, and a healthier Puget Sound.