Lake, estuary camps are finally talking

There’s a new wrinkle in the yearslong debate over the future of Capitol Lake.

Representatives of the pro-lake and pro-estuary camps have conducted two face-to-face meeting already this year with another one scheduled next week.

The Capitol Lake Improvement & Protection Association and the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team are seeking common ground while agreeing to disagree on whether or not to remove the Fifth Avenue Dam that keeps the Deschutes River from flowing unfettered into Budd Inlet.

The two citizen-based, nonprofits can’t determine the fate of the lake alone. But political leaders and state agencies welcome the talks after years of impasse.

“We’re encouraged by the fact the two sides are meeting,” said Jim Erskine, a spokesman for the state Department of Enterprise Services, which manages the lake as part of the state Capitol Campus.

The estuary folks initiated the meetings, more than five years after a committee of state and local governments and the Squaxin Island Tribe released a report recommending, on a split vote, that the lake be converted back to an estuary, which it was before the dam was built in 1951.

The recommendation was never forwarded by Enterprise Services to the state Capitol Committee for a final decision. Some blame the Great Recession and lack of money to either maintain the lake or create the estuary. Others suggested it was too divisive of a community issue to touch.

Just months after the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan issued its report, a miniscule creature called the New Zealand mud snail was discovered in the lake. The lake has been quarantined ever since, a move the lake folks believe is overreaction.

“The snail is a nuisance, not a crisis,” said lake group co-chair Bob Wubbena, a retired engineer whose family owns Fiddlehead Marina on lower Budd Inlet. Besides, he said, other water bodies in the state with a snail infestation, including Lake Washington, aren’t quarantined.

Wubbena also points to a Feb. 15, email he received from his nephew, Bob Wiltshire, who is executive director of the Invasive Species Action Network in Livingston, Montana. “They certainly are a non natives species and they do expand their territories and are spreading to new waters,” Wiltshire wrote. “However, it seems that they do very little, if any, damage.”

Capitol Lake is unique because the entire shoreline is publicly owned and easier to manage than Lake Washington, said state invasive species coordinator Allen Pleus, a Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Having been the center of a long-running battle between remaining a lake or reverting to an estuary, along with the issue of the invasive New Zealand mud snail, Olympia’s Capitol Lake might start to see some movement in addressing those issues.

“They clone themselves and can grow to massive numbers in a short period of time,” Pleus said. “The potential is there for them to become a dominant species in Capitol Lake,” Pleus said, adding that winter draw downs of the lake during freezing weather have helped keep the snail population in check.

The estuary and lake groups remain the most vocal persistent voices on what to do with the 260-acre lake. Meanwhile, 35,000 cubic yards of sediment flow down the Deschutes River each year, slowly but surely filling up the lake basin and threatening Percival Landing, private marinas and the Port of Olympia in lower Budd Inlet.

The Capitol Lake Improvement & Protection Association has refuted studies that point to the lake and dam as water quality problems in lower Budd Inlet, and challenged cost estimates for the lake and estuary alternatives. For instance, the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan prepared by the government committee placed the 50-year cost of the lake at $192 million to $321 million and the estuary at $115 million to $225 million. The nonprofit has its own, 20-year cost estimate of $41 million for the lake and $258 million for the estuary.

“CLAMP cherry-picked its own data to reach a predetermined conclusion — they had an agenda to remove the dam,” Wubbena suggested.

Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team co-founder Sue Patnude, a retired WDFW manager who served on the management plan committee said the report and recommendation is based on solid science that shows the estuary offers better water quality and habitat at a cheaper long-term cost than a lake.

So how did two groups with such divergent views end up in the same room, talking?

“We got tired of all the back and forth, the rumors and the lack of factual information,” Patnude said. “We decided to see if there is any common ground.”

Turns out there is: Both parties want clean water, recreation and healthy fish and wildlife populations in the Deschutes River watershed, and share similar visions on how to manage the upper and middle portions of the watershed, Wubbena said. But they sharply disagree on how to achieve the goals from Tumwater Falls to Priest Point Park.

They each believe the majority of the public supports their position, although there’s never been a scientific poll to gauge public sentiment.

The lake group supports maintenance dredging of the lake while the estuary proponents think dredging is a waste of time and money. And it continues to press the state Legislature for money to seek permits for emergency dredging of the lake.

The estuary camp would rather see lawmakers this session fund a community forum that could be co-sponsored by both nonprofits. Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget only sets aside $100,000 for Capitol Lake.

The two groups have agreed to work together on a cleanup project this spring to remove accumulated debris along the lake shoreline. They also agree that the public should be allowed to sit in on their meetings, although they still are in the early stages. The next meeting is 9 a.m., Tuesday in the conference room at Percival Plaza, 606 Columbia St. NW, Olympia.