OLYMPIA — In the 1950s, builders of Olympia’s Fifth Avenue Dam realized a vision laid out decades earlier by designers of the state Capitol campus, creating a reflecting pool that reflected Capitol Lake and the government buildings on the hillside above.
It is a lake A popular capital city gathering spot, especially on sunny days, couples walk hand-in-hand, sunbathers and joggers get miles in, and small children on bikes jostle casually along the gravel paths.
But the idyllic vista they all enjoy is plagued by environmental problems, cataloged in great detail in a study released last year.
Debris accumulated over decades at a rate of 35,000 cubic yards per year. Algae clumps on the surface. Bacteria have been banned from swimming since the mid-1980s. There is also a lake Closed to all recreational purposes, including boating and fishing, since 2009 – thanks to a small but persistent snail infestation.
Now the 70-year-old lake is facing a new future.
The state’s Department of Enterprise Services evaluated several options and after a lengthy process chose to restore the lake to an estuary, the saltwater tidal flat where the river meets the sea.
The Legislature gave the department $7 million this year to move forward with that project, funding its design and permitting.
The project is not without controversy. Some state lawmakers are wary of footing the bill for the project, which could cost as much as $247 million — or more.
Sen. D-Olympia, who has been in the Legislature for more than 20 years and moved to Olympia in the 1970s. Sam Hunt said. “Those who want to maintain the lake and those who want to divert it to the estuary.”
Supporters of the riparian project see a future with a healthy watershed and environment, noting that this change actually signals a return to the past.
They point to the spread of algae and invasive plants and animals, and say restoring the area to an estuary could allow recreation to return. They also say the plan Instead of serving as a feast for the sea lions that congregate at the dam each fall, more salmon will be allowed to move upstream to spawn.
“This is about restoring our environment,” said Sue Patnood, co-founder of the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team. “What was a good idea when the dam was built in 1951 is not a good idea now.”
Opponents of the estuary project decry the destruction of an Olympia landmark and a possible threat to the city’s functioning waterfront. They also question whether the project will improve water quality.
The key Republican on the state’s construction budget, Sen. Some opponents, such as Rep. Mark Schoessler, R-Ritzville, see the price as a “boondoggle.”
“We have cities across the state that need new bridges,” Schoessler said. “But we are going to replace a good bridge with a swamp. Estuary is a fancy word for swamp.
Years of work, millions in public spending and reams of public opinion went into the project. The state spent about $6 million on the latest environmental study, according to the Department of Enterprise Services.
Meanwhile, The conflict over Capitol Lake touches on big challenges familiar to the Pacific Northwest: whether to keep dams that alter the flow of natural waterways. Humans have other qualities; the history of local tribes and their relationship to the landscape; health of salmon; and jewelery of aesthetic and ecological values.
From historic home to entertainment center
Last year’s environmental impact report indicated the estuary had long-standing cultural and spiritual significance for “local tribes”, particularly the Squaxin Island tribe.
The tribe has inhabited the area for thousands of years, and current members are direct descendants of the last tribal members who had a salmon smokehouse near the estuary, said Charlene Kries, executive director of the Squaxin Island Tribe Museum Library and Research Center. A range of plants and animals important to the tribe flourished there, including an abundance of birds.
After the construction of the Fifth Avenue Dam following World War II, New Lake became a recreational center.
Tim Boyd of the Olympia Yacht Club remembers water-ski tournaments, mini hydroplane races and a swimming beach when he moved to the area in the early 1980s. But of the lake Boating and fishing were closed in 2009 and it dried up.
“I think it’s impacted how people feel about Capitol Lake because they haven’t really had full access to it and been able to enjoy it like they could until the last decade or so,” Boyd said.
Each year, the force of the Deschutes River, which feeds the lake on its way to Puget Sound, pushes sediment into the lake and makes it shallower.
“It’s like having a plug in the bathtub,” Patnude said, “and, you know, washing your feet in it every day and the dirt piles up.”
Water quality monitoring began in the lake in the 1970s and multiple committees have been formed since then The problem of how to manage the lake was taken up, and as a result A fog of acronyms and reports.
Even last year’s environment report acknowledged “decades of political stagnation”.
The state considered retaining the lake but dredging the northern basin more frequently, and a hybrid option that would remove the dam but prevent the retention of the reflecting pool. But the Department of Enterprise Services believes restoring the estuary is the only way to meet state water-quality standards.
Patnude, a former regional director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, called estuaries “the most productive ecological asset we can have.”
Christopher Peters, chairman of the Squaxin Island Tribe, applauded the state’s decision in October to restore the estuary, saying in a statement that the move was “significant.” “A meaningful step toward a larger effort to improve the health of the Deschutes watershed for native species.”
Bob Wubbena, former co-chair of the Capitol Lake Improvement and Protection Association, who prepared his own 124-page critique of the draft environmental report, disputes that removing the dam will improve water quality and argues that the dam is a “flood control system.” It will disappear when the dam is pulled out.
“The cost of changing the hydraulics of Puget Sound is high,” said Wubbena, a retired environmental engineer.
While the yacht club, located in Budd Inlet north of the dam, supports maintaining a “restricted” lake, Boyd said members understand and respect the Squaxin Island Tribe’s desire to restore estuarine habitat.
“We feel like that ship has sailed,” Boyd said. “A preferred alternative has been adopted. We are now trying to figure out how we survive.
Boyd said he hopes to catch a remnant A basin could be built at Budd Inlet west of the yacht club, making it easier to maintain a working waterfront, including a club with 250 boat slips.
Looking out over the lake from a park bench on a recent morning, Patnood said people could still enjoy recreation in the estuary — perhaps more than they do now.
“There will still be a paved path around,” Patnude said. It will be better as there are boat launches. You can also kayak here.
How will it be financed?
While the Legislature provided $7 million this year, the Department of Enterprise Services requested an additional $10 million.
It’s unclear how much the overall plan will cost — or what the state will have to pay, Sen. D-Issaquah said. Mark Mullett said.
Mullett, who chairs the state’s capital construction budget, called financing the project “a big unknown.” If the Legislature wants to pay from its capital budget, he said, lawmakers need more clarity on how the cost is calculated and how much state and local governments get.S And other possible funders will pay.
The Department of Enterprise Services estimates the cost of design, permitting and construction to be between $137 million and $247 million. Thirty years of maintenance dredging would cost $29 million to $52 million.
Kris called for a long-term view of the Earth and its benefit to future generations.
“As people in the modern age, we’re having these debates about, ‘Oh, it’s going to cost so much money. This is going to do. It’s going to do it.’ “Yes, it’s healthy to have these debates,” Kries said. “But at the same time, for our future planet and everyone, we have to be conscious … This land is here, but once gone, we are no longer here.
Hunt said he thinks the estuary project will move forward. “But it will be a long and hard slog to get it done.“