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An important milestone that could lead to a free-flowing Deschutes River

The Washington Department of Enterprise Services has announced the “Estuary Alternative” will likely be the preferred option for the Capitol Lake/Deschutes Estuary. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) team expects that alternative to be confirmed in their final EIS next fall. Technical and funding work will happen over the summer.

While we agree with the EIS that the estuary alternative would significantly improve habitat and water quality conditions, is the most cost effective alternative, and would greatly reduce or eradicate the invasive species that have plagued the lower Deschutes River basin for decades, we have numerous concerns with the Draft EIS document and the evaluation process and criteria. Our concerns are detailed in the document on our website. We would like to emphasize that the Executive Summary of the Draft EIS is misleading—Indeed, there is a frequent disconnect between statements made in the Executive Summary and the actual content of the substantive chapters in the DEIS. These are errors of both omission and emphasis. Sadly, most people will only have the time and energy to review the Executive Summary. Therefore, the final DEIS Executive Summary should be more accurate and unbiased in its statements. —Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team statement

In this scenario, the 5th Avenue Dam would be removed and the artificial fresh water of Capitol Lake would be replaced by a river with tidal flats which would be covered with water most of the time. For the first time in many people’s lifetimes, the Deschutes River will run freely from Tumwater Falls to the Puget Sound.

Situated at the foot of the hill below Capitol Campus, the finished Capitol Lake/Deschutes Estuary Project would signal Washington State’s commitment to restoring Puget Sound. In about 20 years, the free-running river could be fully restored, allowing people to stroll, fish and boat along a riverbank vibrant with native plants and wildlife.

Over the next thirty years, the Estuary Alternative will cost half as much as either of the other two options in the Draft EIS published in July 2021 – the Managed Lake and Hybrid Alternatives. If carried out carefully, the Estuary Alternative has the best chance of reducing pollution, algae blooms, and invasive non-native species, and of creating habitat for wildlife, especially fish such as juvenile salmon.

Thurston County and the cities of Tumwater, Olympia, Lacey and LOTT supported the Estuary Alternative in their comments on the Draft EIS. Many residents, environmental organizations, and state and federal agencies did so as well. The strong support came in spite of perceived inconveniences Olympia residents might face as the project commences, who will encounter construction noise, restricted access to Capitol Lake and Marathon Parks, and temporary road and bridge closures.

Because the Draft EIS’s construction timeline calls for removing the dam fifteen to seventeen years after building permits are issued, the Estuary Alternative’s completion date is projected to be more than twenty years into the future. Due to the unique nature of an estuary restoration project, however, such projections may change.

Dam removal will take place only after a number of projects are completed: dredging the current lake bed and East Bay of Budd Inlet; preparation of new shorelines and midstream islands; replacement of the current 5th Avenue bridge; moving part of Deschutes Parkway; creating new street connections to the Olympia Way roundabout; replacing many of the current park trails; and constructing a fishing dock and boat launch.

Partial correction of a long-standing problem

In 1951, a dam under the 5th Avenue bridge created the current Capitol Lake. Creating a park and decorative freshwater lake to reflect the Legislative Building’s dome were popular among most citizens of Olympia, although some sports fishermen predicted that the project would destroy fishing. The dam construction also meant tearing down Little Hollywood, housing long occupied by Asian immigrants and their families, who provided the labor to complete the project.

Negative predictions about the long-term health of the lake began to come true in the 1970s as it filled with sediment and pollution. From the 1980s to the present, swimming, fishing, and boating were banned on the lake due to shallow water, pollution, and algae blooms. The water quality and temperature violated the standards of the federal Clean Water Act.

The State applied for dredging permits to remove sediment from the lake in the 1990s, but those attempts were rejected with strong objections from the Squaxin Island Tribe. Various cleanup plans for the Deschutes River were explored by the State since then, but the plans, or portions of them, were not approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. It appears the current Draft EIS for this small part of the river, Capitol Lake, will meet the EPA’s requirements.

The Alternative is just the first step in restoring the Deschutes River Estuary and Puget Sound.

According to a 2012 report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Deschutes Estuary is a highly degraded, urbanized estuary. Removing the dam to restore the estuary is of primary importance in restoring Budd Inlet’s water quality. A restored estuary will filter out sediments and pollutants from the Deschutes River before it flows into Puget Sound, providing cleaner water for humans and marine life.

But removing the dam is just one of many steps to restore the Deschutes Estuary. Much of the dissolved nitrogen pollution in Capitol Lake comes from more than 40 stormwater outfalls. During heavy rain events, excess nutrients from fertilizers, pet waste and other sources are pushed through unmonitored outfalls into lakes, streams, and rivers. As outlined in the Draft EIS, the Estuary Alternative will not include plans or funding to combine and/or clean up the stormwater outfalls. Residents will have to continue to push for cleaning up stormwater and leaky septic tanks through other programs, not just for Capitol Lake, but throughout our region.

Many other projects will be necessary to restore the 52-mile long Deschutes River and its estuary. The Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Plan for WRIA 13, Deschutes Watershed (March 1, 2022), identifies habitat projects that will help filter out pollutants and projects that will stabilize groundwater levels as more private wells are drilled for residential development.

All of the projects are within Thurston County because the parts of the Deschutes River near its headwaters in Lewis County do not face the same urban development pressure. Part of the plan’s implementation will be the formation of the Deschutes Watershed Council, which will include citizens’ groups such as Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT). While the plan was voted down by the Building Industry Association of Washington, other members of the planning team are moving forward with the council’s formation.

For more information, go to Deschutes Estuary Environmental Impact Statement or Strategies for Nearshore Protection and Restoration in Puget Sound.

Charlotte Persons is a member of the League of Women Voters and serves on the board of Black Hills Audubon Society. She follows Thurston County development issues for WIP.

One Comment

  1. Charlotte, thank you for this excellent summary of the history of the Deschutes Estuary issue, where we are in the process of dam removal, and why it’s important. If anyone has questions about the work that Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT) does to advocate for estuary restoration through dam removal, visit us at or email me directly at

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