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Unclamping the Deschutes

by Sue Patnude

Capitol Lake isn't a lake. It's a river disconnected from its estuary. It's a serious disruption to an ecosystem that hasn't been able to function normally for 58 years. And, for Capitol Lake, timing is everything.

Future generations could see this body of water return to a freshwater marsh and then eventually to land. Every year the "lake" fills up a little more as the Deschutes River dumps an estimated 35,000 cubic yards of sediment into the basin. The lake acts like a huge bathtub with the plug in.

Before the dam was built to form Capitol Lake in the early 1950s, the Deschutes Estuary was a ruin. Much of the estuary had already been filled to build downtown Olympia and its port. Raw sewage oozed into the tidal mud. Garbage was strewn about at low tide. "Undesirables" lived along its shores. The mud flats became symbolic as negative, unaesthetic, and stinking.

Some people still carry the memory of that picture and smell today. But a healthy body of water and its bed don't stink. The smell on some of the healthier Puget Sound beaches at low tide can be refreshing, salty, and clean. For some folks, however, the smell of Capitol Lake on a warm day isn't pleasant.

During the 1980s, when my son was about 8 years old, he went swimming in Capitol Lake on a daycare outing. The water was polluted. He contacted giardia and was very sick. The swimming area was posted unsafe to use due to public health risk shortly after that and closed to public use.

Giardia is the most common cause of waterborne illness, and causes severe diarrhea and stomach pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It's transmitted when someone comes in contact with human or animal feces. Capitol Lake was contaminated from sewage and stormwater runoff. It hasn't been used for public recreation for more than 28 years.

The Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Steering Committee (CLAMP), a group made up of local, tribal, and state government representatives, formed more than 10 years ago to develop a lake management plan.

On July 2, 2009, CLAMP voted to recommend letting the Deschutes River flow once again into Puget Sound. Of the four alternatives for management of sediment in the lake, restoring the estuary is environmentally and economically at the top. For more information, go to http://www.ga.wa.gov

The next step is for the director of General Administration, Linda Villegas Bremer, to make a recommendation on how to manage Capitol Lake to the State Capitol Committee. The committee members are Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, Secretary of State Sam Reed, Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, and Governor Gregoire's representative Marty Brown.

The final decision will fall to the Washington State Legislature, which could also provide funding for the restoration.

For many years the department, whose primary role in government is to take care of state-owned facilities, has managed Capitol Lake. This body of water has been maintained as a building manager would maintain a building.

However, in reality, it's never stopped being a river disconnected from its estuary. As the lake continued to fill with dirt, the budget for maintaining it as a facility ceased to exist. The department has done an admirable job, despite the no-win situation in which its staff has been placed.

In this current economic climate, it will take more than state money to make estuary restoration a reality, yet it would make sense that, with the level of public and private resources being invested in Puget Sound, clean up of the Deschutes estuary would be a priority for funding.

The Legislature has a dammed-up Puget Sound estuary in its backyard, and they'll not be able to ignore or compromise this important project in either a political or a regulatory environment.

While we wait for the political wheels to start spinning, why not begin discussing how we'd make a change as significant as estuary restoration in downtown Olympia work for everyone? What strategies should be used to carry out full estuary restoration for the common good?

Estuary and lake supporters will need to come to the table prepared to develop strategies that work for all interests and for the public health. Recreation, economic development, property values, fish and wildlife habitat, and public health needs can complement each other as elements in a package that would evolve around a naturally functioning estuarine environment.

We see working examples of this in many places around Puget Sound: Twanoh State Park on Hood Canal and Golden Gardens Park in Seattle, for example. They offer huge beaches for people to relax, swim, and picnic. Even today, our marine waterfront is a substantial economic draw. It's where we hold our celebrations and festivals such as Harbor Days and the Wooden Boat Fair. It's the location of our Farmers' Market and our working port. This natural gem draws visitors from the global community. Though our particular future may look different than a traditional sandy beach, we will surely develop a deeper appreciation for the gifts that nature will bestow here in Olympia as time and careful stewardship together perform the magic of healing.

Sue Patnude, a co-founder of SPEECH, is the vice president of the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team, a pro-estuary group. Patnude was a member of the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Steering Committee from 2002 to 2008. You can contact her at convergence@wildblue.net.

Editor's Note: As always, we invited submissions for this issue. Two articles came in supporting the CLAMP estuary recommendation, but surprisingly none in favor of retaining the lake. We will continue to cover this subject as the planning process unfolds, and may feature alternate points of view in the coming months. Many thanks to our writers and other volunteers who make the Green Pages awesome month after month. And thanks for reading!
Joanne McCaughan, Managing Editor

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22