Opinion Columns & Blogs

Is this a watershed moment for Deschutes River?

“Opposing parties need to cooperate on impasse,” admonished the headline in last Friday’s Olympian. That generic advice could apply to any number of current events from ongoing budget battles in Congress to fights over background checks in Washington State. In this case it’s over the question of whether Capitol Lake should remain a lake or be restored as an estuary.

The occasion was a preliminary “situation assessment” by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center at a joint meeting of the State Capitol Committee and the Capitol Campus Advisory Committee on Dec. 11. The Center, which describes itself as a “neutral resource for collaborative problem solving,” was commissioned by the Department of Enterprise Services, which manages the lake, to assess the current situation of lake/estuary management and outline possible ways forward.

On the basis of 44 interviews with diverse stakeholders, the report acknowledges that elements already exist for a stable solution to the management conundrum. For example, all parties desire a safe, healthy environment as well as an attractive and economically robust downtown. They also share an appreciation for the historical and cultural importance of the lake/estuary, as well as its social value to people throughout our community and region though they have real differences over how they remember and interpret that history. The vast majority believes that possibilities for a collaborative management plan exist.

But the report notes very real challenges to any future course of action, the greatest being polarization over removal of the dam. There are also deep differences over what constitutes “best available science” regarding the lake/estuary and how data over water quality should be interpreted, although it should also be noted that a lone dissenter is responsible for almost all of those differences. In addition, participants hold widely divergent views on the aesthetics, economics, and recreational possibilities of a lake versus a restored estuary.

I pondered all this on my regular morning walk around Capitol Lake and wondered how the cooperation and collaboration that the report and The Olympian call for might actually take place. With some parties in the dispute insisting that whatever else happens, the Fifth Avenue dam must remain in place while others, myself among them, equally adamant in demanding its removal, it’s difficult to imagine where common ground may lie. Yet, while acknowledging everyone’s frustration with the status quo, the report provides grounds for hope, if not optimism.

In addition to resolving the dispute over water quality models, the report also calls upon the entities that were party to the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan (CLAMP) to reconvene with a new focus: re-consider a “hybrid” approach that incorporates elements of both lake and estuary provided it’s good for salmon and complies with the Clean Water Act; widen the frame to include the entire Deschutes River watershed and its relationship to Budd Inlet; and explore a local funding mechanism which would presumably give local voices more decision-making authority than they currently have.

It’s the watershed approach that attracts my attention. Wendell Berry writes, “Pondering on the facts of gravity and the fluidity of water shows us that the golden rule speaks to a condition of absolute interdependency and obligation. People who live on rivers—or in fact anywhere in a watershed—might rephrase the rule in this way: do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” That’s not a bad mantra for all of us to keep in mind as we seek to move the conversation forward.

Without losing sight of the fact that a decision over the fate of the dam will need to be made, a management plan that considers all parts of the watershed rather than simply focusing on Capitol Lake has a great deal to recommend itself. Charles Wilkinson has observed that political geography in the West—as determined by straight lines arbitrarily drawn to demarcate the boundaries of everything from states and public land to cities and counties—seldom match natural features like watersheds that might make for more workable divisions. “This failure to tailor sovereignty with geography assures multi-jurisdictional combat,” writes Wilkinson. By placing the lake/estuary debate within a larger discussion of the health of the entire Deschutes River basin, the need for combat might be reduced.

In addition to its primary definition as the region drained by a particular body of water, Donna Seaman notes that watershed also refers to “a turning point, a dividing line that precipitates significant change.” Could this be a watershed moment for the Deschutes River and its estuary?