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Still waiting on restoration of the Deschutes estuary: After years of research, why does the state continue to delay dam removal?

As the summer passes, it’s difficult not to notice the green algae blooms in Capitol Lake. Those who spend time around the lake have noticed the smell of soggy decay. Trash skirts the area where Lakefair just took place. It does not take a scientist to know that the water is unhealthy and neglected.

And that is exactly what the scientists are saying. In a recent publication from Department of Ecology, they state: “Overall, the Capitol Lake dam has a detrimental impact on Budd Inlet dissolved oxygen concentrations. The negative impact results from the combined effects of circulation in southern Budd Inlet, carbon loading from Capitol Lake, and nitrogen loading from Capitol Lake.”

Dissolved oxygen is critical to underwater ecosystems. As the green mats of algae perish and sink to the bottom, the decomposition process removes oxygen from the water. Insufficient dissolved oxygen leads to dead zones, since life cannot exist without oxygen.
Those who wish to maintain Capitol Lake have rallied around the work of Dr. David Milne, a retired Evergreen faculty who claims that the lake improves water quality for Budd Inlet by acting like a LOTT treatment facility for nitrogen pollution. This claim has already been rebutted and dismissed by Ecology. Yet, in a recent public meeting hosted by lake supporters, Dr. Milne was asked if he would advocate damming other estuaries to improve water quality. His answer was “yes.”

Meanwhile, Ecology diligently continues the research mandated by the Clean Water Act, always with the same conclusions of deteriorating water quality with the dam in place. The Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan (CLAMP) committee voted to restore the estuary in 2009, after years of peer-reviewed research. Dam removal remains on the near-term action agenda of the Puget Sound Partnership and the list of priority projects of the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project. More and more people in the community are raising their voice to remove the dam.

What stands in the way? First, let’s follow the money
Capitol Lake has a direct benefit for the Port of Olympia, the Olympia Yacht Club, and Fiddlehead Marina. Since 1951, only minimal sediment amounts have entered Budd Inlet as a result of the dam. These maritime industries do not need to dredge as often as they once did. As the lake fills and sediment begins to spill over the dam, they are now preparing to lobby the State to perform a maintenance dredging of Capitol Lake: on the taxpayers’ dime.

Eventually, the businesses that have come to depend on the 5th Avenue Dam will have to face that dam removal is inevitable, given water quality violations. They will need to come to the table and discuss how to make restoration work for their businesses and for Puget Sound. They cannot continue to externalize the cost of doing business at the expense of the environment. Washington state taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize marina owners and the Port of Olympia.

Some may think that financial barriers prevent dam removal and restoration. It is true that restoration comes with a sizeable price tag. However, lake management comes at a greater cost. Regular maintenance dredging of the lake and eventual replacement of the dam costs more over time than dredging once, removing the dam, and building a 5th Avenue bridge. A decision to maintain the lake is a financial burden on future generations.

It’s not just a financial burden, but also an environmental burden. Dredging the lake without removing the dam will not improve water quality. The Capitol Campus Design Advisory Committee recently commissioned a study on the permitting process for dredging, which will be required with either a lake or an estuary outcome. The notes of the final presentation state that, under the lake scenario, “dredging is very expensive and the state would be investing funds into a maintenance dredge activity where no environmental benefit has been identified.”

Additionally, when there is no environmental benefit, there is no funding to dredge. Where there is environmental benefit, such as coming into compliance with the Clean Water Act and Puget Sound restoration, there is funding.

Dredging will also not remove the New Zealand mud snails. The estuary scenario allows greater control over the freshwater invasive species. From the same presentation: “In general, the estuarine environment would provide better habitat or benefit for more desired species and a more negative impact on some of the invasive species.“

The study also showed that, without a final decision on the outcome, permits would be difficult to obtain. The State will need to decide between the lake and the estuary to do any dredging at all.

An economic benefit that is often overlooked is the rise of the restoration economy. With restoration funds streaming into the local community, we can provide jobs in the fields of science, engineering, planning, construction, plant breeding and more. A report from Restore America’s Estuaries titled Jobs & Dollars states that “restoring our coasts can create more than 30 jobs for each million dollars invested. That’s more than twice as many jobs as the oil and gas and road construction industries combined.”

Restoration of the estuary will also bring people to downtown Olympia, not just for new jobs, but also for recreation and education. Runners and walkers will still enjoy the mile and a half loop around healthier water. Kayakers and other boaters will return. Wildlife enthusiasts will come to watch shorebirds, seals and salmon. Educators will bring students of all ages to observe the Deschutes estuary come back to life.

Another economic benefit is the enhancement of salmon habitat. Salmon are a major economic driver in South Sound, especially for the Squaxin Island Tribe. The Tribe has been researching salmon activity in Budd Inlet, and they are finding that 73% of the juvenile salmon found in the inlet are coming down from the Puyallup and Green River watersheds.

According to the Tribe: “This isn’t really surprising. Deep south Puget Sound is one of the most productive areas in the world for the food juvenile salmon need. It’s natural that they would evolve to migrate to a place with a lot of food before heading out to the ocean. To increase the habitat they prefer here would only benefit them.” Restoring the Deschutes estuary will return 260 acres of estuarine habitat to salmon all over South and Central Puget Sound.

The only other barrier against estuary restoration comes from those that insist that we preserve our Capitol Lake heritage. They cling to notion of a freshwater reflection pond below the State Capitol. These days, with the pollution, stagnation, and layers of scum across the surface, it no longer serves to provide a decent reflection. At least in the literal sense.

It’s true Capitol Lake has been a part of our recent past, with fond memories for many people. Some learned to swim there when the lake was still open. Lakefair used to include boat racing and other activities on the water. As fond as these memories are, no amount of dredging will bring us back to those days. Only removing the dam and restoring the Deschutes estuary will clean our waters, improve public health hazards, restore recreational access, and control invasive species.

Our heritage goes back longer than the 60 years of Capitol Lake. The estuary has been here for thousands of years. Indian tribes and white settlers chose the mouth of the Deschutes River, a once productive ecosystem, as a center for settlement and trade. If the water is to define our history, I would like to choose the heritage I leave for my child. I choose clean water. I choose restored recreational access. I choose an economy that benefits our community and the natural world. I choose new beginnings. What’s your choice?

Dani Madrone is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT). She has a degree from the Evergreen State College, where she focused on sustainability and community organizing, specifically around controversial environmental issues. DERT advocates for the removal of the 5th Avenue Dam and the restoration of the Deschutes watershed, Budd Inlet and South Puget Sound for a vibrant ecosystem and robust economy centered on restoration.

Visit the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team website at for more information.

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