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Restoring Our Estuary - Olympia's Tidal Beating Heart

by Gabrielle Byrne and Dan Grosboll

Olympia and South Sound are seizing an historic opportunity to become a model for healthy waters and a healthy world.

In 1951, a dam blocking the Deschutes River was constructed to create the Capitol Lake reservoir as part of the Capitol Campus. It's purpose is to reflect the Legislative Building the capital's domed structure and for the residents and visitors to the state's capital city to enjoy.

But when this choice was made, part of our history and heritage was lost, along with an ecological system that supported habitat, water quality, and our own health.

It's easy to understand why officials made the decision to dam the estuary at the time and why they now have chosen to restore the estuary.

In 1951, Olympia piped its raw sewage into the harbor, the area was seen as an unsightly mess, and there was little understanding of the unintended ecological and economic consequences of creating the impoundment.

Now we know that maintaining the lake is bad for water quality, harms more species and ecological communities than it helps, and will cost substantially more to maintain than an estuary.

Before the industrialization of the basin and port area, the Deschutes estuary supported a wide variety of uses, including human communities that lived along its shoreline and a healthy shellfish bed of native Olympia oysters.

Now that we know more about the danger Puget Sound is in from stormwater runoff, low oxygen in the water, and the ever-growing human population it's the right time to learn from the past, look to the future, and restore the Deschutes estuary.

Over the past 150 years, we've lost more than 95 percent of the estuarine wetlands in lower Budd Inlet and more than 75 percent of the river estuarine marshes in Puget Sound. Over time, this affects our community's economy, our community health, and the sustainability of the world's oceans.

The recent decision by the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Steering Committee (CLAMP) to support estuary restoration was courageous and correct. Maintaining the lake would require regular dredging to maintain open water and remove invasive Eurasian water milfoil. The lake is unlikely to meet water quality standards with dredging so that it could be used for swimming or water skiing.

The Capitol Lake reservoir is fundamentally ecologically unhealthy and unsustainable. Its shallow, warm, high-nutrient waters promote the runaway growth of algae and aquatic vegetation that decays and leads to low dissolved oxygen levels in lower Budd Inlet.

All the options before us status quo lake, split the basin estuary, a managed lake, and a full estuary restoration are expensive and would require substantial public investment. No cheap, easy, long-term solution is available, but the estuary option is the least expensive.

We'll have to find ways to pay for any option we choose, but it's hard to see how federal or state officials can support funding a managed lake that will result in poor water quality and poor habitat conditions for most species.

The estuary option is more likely to bring in federal habitat restoration funding, because it improves water quality and habitat. Federal transportation funding to improve access to Olympia's west side and for traffic safety also could be part of this funding.

Restoring the lake to an estuary will allow much the same recreational opportunities, but cost millions less than maintaining the lake, even when infrastructure and costs for maintaining marina and port berths through dredging are included.

The marinas and the port may incur costs, and a cost-sharing agreement should be developed to ensure that we can maintain a healthy working waterfront.

It's not appropriate that the state of Washington, we the taxpayers, totally foot the bill for maintaining the lake or for restoration of the estuary.

Predictions of a downtown economic collapse and marinas going out of business by some pro-lake interests were correctly seen as being starkly at odds with the facts.

None of the scenarios developed in the CLAMP analysis would put marinas or downtown economics at risk, and the costs of dredging marinas have been included in the analysis. In addition, estuarine restoration will interest the federal government as an action integral to salmon recovery efforts in a time when jobs are scarce and helping the environment is in line with the Obama administration's new green economy.

The chances of getting federal dollars to maintain a reservoir to reflect the Legislative Building while habitat is being degraded and the water quality is close to zero. That means local and state taxpayers and perhaps the marinas and port would likely be alone in footing the bill for keeping the lake.

Let's be clear: The removal of the dam and restoration of the estuary isn't the only thing we need to do to recover healthy water in Budd Inlet. Many other conditions contribute to poor habitat quality and water quality, but removal of the dam is likely the most important single action that we can take to improve it. Locking in a managed lake that makes ecosystem recovery more difficult would have clearly been the wrong decision. A restored estuary will have immediate effects with increased tidal exchange in Budd Inlet and rapid colonization by vegetation and invertebrates important for salmon.

CLAMP, made up of representatives from local governments, the Squaxin Island Tribe, and state agencies, took a stand in favor of Puget Sound, water quality, and habitat. It deserves our heartfelt congratulations.

Now is the time to start working together to make sure that estuary restoration works for the community, works for the economy, and works for the environment. There will be difficult discussions and negotiations ahead: who pays and how much; how to minimize disruptions to local businesses, organizations and residents; and how to heal the divided community so that once again we are working together toward solutions.

Make your voice heard by going to http://www.ga.wa.gov/CapitolLake/ and clicking on "Feedback" or calling your local government representatives and Port commissioners.

Gabrielle Byrne and Dan Grosboll are members of People For Puget Sound.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22