Pierce County’s Lake Kapowsin becomes home to state’s first freshwater aquatic reserve

Fisherman spend a quiet afternoon on Lake Kapowsin in Pierce County on March 31.
Fisherman spend a quiet afternoon on Lake Kapowsin in Pierce County on March 31. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Pierce County’s Lake Kapowsin, formed by a volcanic mudflow eons ago, has been named the state’s first freshwater aquatic reserve.

The designation by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark on Thursday will preserve the lake’s distinctive aquatic profile, but won’t protect its shores from commercial development.

The designation was a victory for preservationists who had argued the 515-acre lake should be preserved for scientific research, hunting and fishing, but it was a defeat for advocates of turning part of the lake and its shore into a world-class rowing course and park.

“Lake Kapowsin is one of the few undeveloped lakes on the Puget lowlands,” said Goldmark in announcing the designation. “By making this natural treasure an aquatic reserve, we are protecting its unique and special qualities so people can play, hunt and fish it in the future as they do today.”

Lake Kapowsin is the state’s eighth aquatic reserve. The other seven are in saltwater. The reserve designation is designed to protect important native ecosystems on state-owned aquatic lands.

A Seattle business man and rowing enthusiast, William Pickard had worked for three decades to create what he said would be a world-class competitive rowing course on the lake that could be used in global competitions and in teaching youths the sport.

Pickard gave up his quest earlier this year when he failed to win enough support from public officials and business people to oppose the Department of Natural Resources.

He had argued the lake’s ecology could be preserved and its shores converted to a public park with the profits from the rowing competitions. The lake, with a view of the Cascades and a sheltered site, would offer the kind of placid water needed for rowing contests, he said.

Kapowsin was formed 500 years ago when the Electron Mudflow from Mount Rainier blocked Kapowsin Creek and inundated a forest surrounding the creek. The lake was the site of an early settlement with several sawmills, a railroad, a school and numerous homes. The town died when the timber resources were cut down and the city of Tacoma bought the site in anticipation of using the lake for water supply storage. The city never carried through with that plan.

The lake is dotted with the remnants of the old forest sticking out of the water and providing shelter for fish.

The reserve designation will do little to ensure that the lake shores will remain undeveloped. The state owns the lake, but others own the shore. A Texas company has applied for permits to build a luxury residential area on part of the shore. Other parts of the shoreline are owned by a timber company, the city of Tacoma and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

If the sentiments expressed at a public hearing on the DNR’s proposal for the lake earlier this year are any indication, local residents were divided on what should be the lake’s future. Some backed the park and rowing course while others favored the reserve.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663