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Capitol Lake hangs in the balance as state evaluates future management options

Bellamy Pailthorp
Capitol Lake in Olympia in August, 2018. The capitol dome's reflection is clouded by mats of algae and invasive milfoil that thrive in the lake's shallow, warm water.
Updated: March 17, 2022 at 3:19 PM PDT
Returning Capitol Lake to a more natural state – as an estuary that rises and falls with the tides – will most likely be the preferred alternative for managing its future. The ornamental waterbody that reflects the capitol dome is riddled with invasive species and clogged by sediments from the dam that created it. Officials are close to issuing a final Environmental Impact Statement that evaluates the options moving forward. They announced Wednesday that the estuary alternative rose to the top, after more than 850 comments on the draft impact statement.

There’s a push to restore tidelands and wetlands all over the country. It’s widely acknowledged that these more natural landscapes provide big benefits to water quality and wildlife.

But, what if following this trend would mean eliminating a manmade feature that’s become integral to a community -- and is a signature feature of the state capitol?  That’s the debate heating up in Olympia, where the fate of Capitol Lake hangs in the balance. A $4-million dollar process to study the options for its future has just begun.

The lake sits in the heart of Olympia, just beneath the capitol dome. It was conceived more than a hundred years ago as an ornamental feature of the state capitol campus.

But what began as a picturesque reflecting pond has filled with sediment and deteriorated into a shallow haven for invasive species. It’s been closed to swimming for decades because of poor water quality. And boating has not been allowed since 2009, when invasive New Zealand mud snails were discovered here.    

Still, on any given day, you’ll find lots of people out running on the gravel path around the lake, or sitting in one of the parks along the shore -- the flow of pedestrian traffic here is reminiscent of Seattle's Green Lake Park. On a Saturday morning, I find longtime Olympia resident Tracy Car-Marsh here, out walking two dogs. She says she wants to see the lake taken out and the estuary returned.

“That’s what it should be. Right now, it’s just filled with weeds and everything,” she said. “It’s not like what it was in the ‘50s, when they first made it – I’ve seen pictures. Or even in the ‘80s, when I remember it. So, I’d like to see it turned back into what it was, before they dammed it off.”   

Others here disagree, including Barbara Braun, who says she hates the way  the lake has deteriorated and would like to see it reopened for recreation.

“My preference is to save the lake. It’s something – I come down and I walk, probably three or four times a week. It’s beautiful and it’s just been a longstanding  jewel of the area,” she said.   

Either way, work on the lake is needed, which is why the state has started an environmental impact statement, studying future management options. This latest effort comes after more than two decades of prior work, in which a return of the estuary was recommended on a divided vote that ultimately stalled.

One Group Favors Return To Nature

It’s a debate Sue Patnude has followed for years, first as a manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and now as the head of a group called the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team(DERT.)  They want to take out the dam that created the lake in 1951 and return the area to more natural state.

“This is the beginning of Puget Sound. This is the river that starts the whole process,” Patnude says.

She says the dam on the Deschutes River is like a symbolic choke hold on the headwaters of the Sound. 

“And the river’s being kept from flowing into Puget Sound. And because that’s happening, it is causing water quality problems, not only in the lake itself – the sediment reservoir itself – but it’s causing water quality problems in the river and in Budd Inlet, which is the receiving waters for the river, if the river could flow through,” Patnude says.  

Her group argues that taking out the dam and draining the lake would improve the ecology, allowing the natural tidal exchange of fresh water with salt water. It would also relieve pressure on wastewater treatment in the area.

It would require lots of construction, including a new bridge. But they say it would improve habitat for endangered Chinook salmon and wouldn’t require the ongoing expense of dredging sediment, which would instead form new beaches for the public to enjoy.

“Beaches where people can come out and hang out and collect rocks and shells and watch birds. You know, just a Puget Sound beach. That’s what this is supposed to be – is a Puget Sound beach, not a sediment reservoir with cement walls around it,” she says.     

Rival Group Wants To  Save The Lake, Step By Step Approach

But a rival group wants to save the lake. They agree that sediment is causing big problems, such as algae blooms that thrive in warmer water. They want to resume the practice of regular maintenance dredging. The last time it was done was in1986 and the silt is piling up. Bob Holman is a retired water quality engineer who serves on the board of the Capitol Lake Improvement and Protection Association(CLIPA.)

“We believe that having the lake in place allows for the potential to remove the sediment economically and in a sustainable, environmentally sensitive way,” Holman says.

“Because a tremendous amount of sediment comes down in the winter storms, in large surges. And having the dam there allows that sediment to settle out in a way that could be easily removed, before the sediment reaches Puget Sound and reaches other contaminated sediment.”  

Holman says there are other benefits to the dam, such as possible protection from increasing sea level rise. And his group estimates the cost of removing it is about six times more than maintenance dredging. They favor a step-by-step approach, or possibly a gradual, hybrid solution.

“I don’t think a lot of people recognize what’s involved in removing the dam. They just think okay there’s this fifty-foot dam there, we’ll take it out,” he says. “There’s lots of costs associated with this and you can’t go backwards.  And to commit to spend something in the order of $400 million dollars, to remove the dam – you don’t get a second chance at that.”       

Local Tribe Wants Dam Removal

But the pro-estuary group says regular dredging costs would add up over time. And they have an important ally. The Squaxin Island Tribeis native to the area and wants the Deschutes to be unleashed.

Standing on top of the Fifth Avenue dam at the northwest end of the lake, the tribe’s assistant natural resources director, Jeff Dickison, says this dam's removal would be an important step forward in longstanding efforts to restore Puget Sound. 

“Ironic that we’re spending a lot of money to restore habitat all around Puget Sound and the state and here in the shadow of the capitol, we can’t seem to find our way,” Dickison says.  

He says dam removal here would be a powerful political statement. But it would also be meaningful because of the legacy of the area, which has ceremonial and economic value to the tribe that they protected in treaties.

“This is very important to the tribe. It is a primary producer of fish and particularly Chinook salmon in southern Puget Sound. And this was one of the homes of one of the bands that make up the Squaxin Island Tribe. The Steh-Chass band lived right over here, kind of at the foot of the capitol,” he says.  

Dickison suspects politics have played a role in delaying restoration of the estuary; he’s been working on it for more than 30 years. But he notes the people of Squaxin Island have experience with dam removal—for example, their long fight to remove a 120-year-old dam on Goldsboro Creek in Mason County.

“The tribe’s all about patience and perseverance,” he says.  “They have been in this area for thousands of years and they expect to be for thousands more.”

Dickson says they won’t give up easily. 

The gears are moving slowly, but work on a formal Environmental Impact Statement is now underway and the state will be evaluating its options over the next few years.

How that ultimately pans out could radically change the look and feel of the state capitol.

Supporters of the plan to take out the lake and restore the estuary are joining with the Squaxin Island Tribe this weekend, for a festival recognizing the indigenous heritage of downtown Olympia.  

That event takes place on Saturday (Sept 1.) 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to