Lake Tapps won’t be refilled to recreational levels by Memorial Day, despite previous optimism by the reservoir’s operator that the lake was “on target” for the traditional start of summer boating season.
Cascade Water Alliance hadn’t anticipated delays as recently as mid-March, but on Friday officials said the lake won’t reach summer-time levels right away because “nature hasn’t been cooperative.”
Spokeswoman Elaine Kraft said the operator is “putting every available drop of water” into the man-made reservoir — about 50 million gallons per day.
The earlier target date was based on anticipation of normal precipitation. Kraft couldn’t say when the lake is expected to reach the standard 542 feet above sea level.
“We have no idea,” she said. “We need it to rain.”
Cascade CEO Chuck Clarke said he sympathizes with residents.
“Cascade understands and shares the community’s disappointment,” Clarke said in a statement.
Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a drought emergency in much of the state, including east Pierce County, because of a severely small snowpack in the mountains.
“We’re experiencing extremely low in-stream flows,” Kraft said. “Lower than we’ve ever seen.”
Cascade has put 5.5 billion gallons of water into the lake, but 10.7 billion more are needed. Kraft said the water level is at 527 feet, but visible depths vary.
The 4.5-square-mile reservoir is like a martini glass, she said, with a wide lake bed that takes increasingly more water to make a visible difference.
“It’s a broad lake,” Kraft said. “Some people are seeing more (water) than others.”
The refill delay comes after months of significant repairs, maintenance and improvements to the century-old system, which is managed as an eventual drinking water source. Lake Tapps dropped this winter to a level of 505 feet, the lowest since 2003, in preparation for the project.
The work included replacement of a plywood flume with seismic improvements to a dike and inspection of pipes and gates that control water flow to and from the White River.
Kraft said the more than $15 million project will ensure smooth operation of the system for years. It’s unfortunate that the project coincided with low precipitation, she said.
Nearly 12,000 residents — especially those who live in some 1,500 waterfront homes — watch water levels rise and fall every year.
During typical offseason drawdowns, water levels at Lake Tapps are restored by April 15; this year it was delayed due to the multimillion-dollar project.
Leon Stucki, a representative from the Lake Tapps Community Council, said he knows how hard Cascade is working to fill the lake. He said residents are disappointed but recognize the challenges.
“Obviously, they’d like to see a full lake,” he said. “Most people are somewhat forgiving and understanding.”
Stucki noted that residents understand the long-term benefits of the work that necessitated the historic drawdown.
He said many people worry the lake won’t reach recreational levels at all this summer, but he remains hopeful.
“I think they will eventually get it full,” he said.
Kraft said that wells and aquifers are filling up, but the rest of the lake depends on cooperative weather.
“It’s not Cascade, it’s Mother Nature,” she said. “We’re just as anxious as everyone else.”