Time for decision on future of Capitol Lake

Wow! The committee charged with determining the future of Capitol Lake has recommended the lake be converted to an estuary.

What a turnaround — a turnaround that will surely spark a lot more debate in the community and in the halls of the Washington Legislature. The lake vs. estuary debate is one that has consumed more than a decade and $1.7 million in tax dollars for consultant studies. South Sound residents are sharply divided on the issue, and that’s not likely to change.


We see the emerging recommendation the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan steering committee in favor of the estuary as a positive step, if for no other reason than it moves this controversial issue one pace closer to an ultimate resolution.

The debate has dragged on far too long. It’s time to pick an option and proceed. What’s interesting is how the scientific and financial studies over the last several years have turned votes. Olympia Councilman Joe Hyer is a good example.

As a member of the CLAMP committee, he was in the lake camp. What persuaded him to switch to the estuary option — with the backing of his City Council colleagues — was the fact that all three state agencies entangled in this controversy solidly support the estuary option.

Peter Goldmark, the new director of the state Department of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson and Ecology Director Jay Manning, signed a letter to the CLAMP committee voicing solid support for converting the lake, which is a reflecting pool for the domed Capitol Building, into an estuary where the Deschutes River will meet southern Budd Inlet.

“The opportunity here is to convert a failing, unhealthy lake into a major restoration project at the base of south Puget Sound,” the agency directors wrote in their letter to their CLAMP colleagues.

Olympia and the three state agencies were joined by representatives from Thurston County and the Squaxin Island tribe in their support of the estuary.

Two members, the Port of Olympia and Tumwater, were less enthusiastic but are open to the idea of an estuary, and a third, the state Department of General Administration, didn’t take a position because the committee recommendation will go to GA Director Linda Villegas Bremer for her review.

It’s important to note that some of those estuary votes are not always unanimous. Thurston County commissioners, for example, voted 2-1 in favor of the estuary with Commissioners Karen Valenzuela and Sandra Romero outvoting Cathy Wolfe, who supported the retention of Capitol Lake.

The vote on the Tumwater City Council was 4-3 in support of the lake option, primarily based on fears of what an estuary would do to the old Tumwater Brewery on the banks of the Deschutes River.


Five years ago the CLAMP committee was evenly divided on the debate — half in the lake camp, half supporting the estuary option.

While some residents complained about spending almost $2 million for scientific studies and financial reviews, those documents clearly swayed votes — as did CLAMP committee membership changes over the years.

The studies showed that it is cheaper to create an estuary and maintain it for 50 years — at a cost of $221 million — than it is a lake, which would cost more than $300 million. The estuary reduces some of the water-quality problems that plague the lake and lower Budd Inlet. The estuary also provides habitat for a greater variety of fish and wildlife. It also mirrors the efforts to create a larger estuary at the mouth of the Nisqually River in northern Thurston County. Efforts there have been applauded as positive steps toward increasing wildlife habitat and improving water quality in Puget Sound.

The same arguments can be made about removal of the Fifth Avenue dam and conversion of Capitol Lake into an estuary. But this deal is far from done.

Bremer, the director of General Administration, the state’s landlord agency, will begin her review in August and make a recommendation to the state Capitol Committee, which has oversight over Capitol Campus issues. The lake, and Deschutes Parkway are considered part of the Capitol Campus.

The Capitol Committee, which includes Lands Commissioner Goldmark, Gov. Chris Gregoire, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen and Secretary of State Sam Reed, will make a recommendation to the Legislature. The federal government also will have a say.

Look for the lake vs. estuary debate to continue as South Sound residents continue to choose sides. That’s OK. What’s key is that this drawn-out issue be brought to resolution.