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Locals cope with low water at Lake Tapps

Morning temperatures in East Pierce County this week were well into the 70s, but the shore at Allan Yorke Park on Lake Tapps was empty and silent, much like the rest of the lake so far this boating season.

Ladders in the swim area were fully exposed. The bare boat launch was surrounded by grounded docks. Buoys rested on the lake bed next to concrete slabs and stumps peeking out of the shallow water. A pickup drove past homeowners’ docks.

A border collie named Mazzie seemed to be the only one not discouraged, wading in the water to fetch her ball and emerging with dirt all over her energetic face.

TammyLynn Vance was peeved that Mazzie had to get smelly and dirty to enjoy the shallow water, “especially since I bathed her yesterday,” she said, laughing.

Vance lived near the park until last year. The Bonney Lake resident said the lake is a big reason she’s lived in the area for a decade.

So how are residents such as herself beating the heat?

“Not using the lake,” she quipped. “They shouldn’t have lowered it this much.”

MILD WINTER MEETS VITAL FIXES

Cascade Water Alliance, which owns and operates the man-made reservoir as an eventual drinking water source, reduced Lake Tapps to historic levels last fall to make significant repairs, maintenance and improvements.

It dropped to 505 feet above sea level, the lowest since 2003, in preparation for a $15 million project that included seismic improvements to a dike and inspection of pipes and gates that control water flow to and from the White River. Cascade officials say the project was vital.

They initially expected to refill the lake to about 542 feet by the usual Memorial Day opening of recreation season.

But the mild winter and historically low snowpack delayed the standard refill, and residents are worried the lake will be low all summer.

Cascade officials added some water into the lake this week and said residents should start to see the lake rise almost immediately.

Todd Stanfield, standing near the Allan Yorke swim area Tuesday and gazing at the remnants of the lake, said he understands that Cascade didn’t intend to have an empty lake this summer.

The Lake Tapps resident said he’s never seen the water so low in his 25 years living down the street from the waterfront. But he said the maintenance projects were important, and the operators couldn’t predict what the weather would do.

“It’s not their fault,” he said. “I don’t hold it against them at all.”

Despite hopeful messages from lake operators, Stanfield said he doesn’t have much faith the lake will be full any time soon.

“But it’s nice to think about,” he said, “because I spend a lot of time on the water.”

The longtime boater hasn’t taken his boat out of storage yet. He normally docks it at a friend’s waterfront home during the summer.

He plans to take his boat south to Riffe Lake soon.

“We’ll all survive this,” Stanfield said.

Leon Stucki, a representative with the Lake Tapps Community Council, also isn’t blaming Cascade Water Alliance.

Still, Stucki said a third of the nearly 1,500 waterfront residents are seeing only sand and stumps right now, which can lead to frustration.

What’s more, safety is a concern. Stucki said families are worried that with the water so low, kids who find rare places to swim won’t be easily reached in an emergency.

Cascade Water Alliance is working closely with first responders to ensure safety for residents, said spokeswoman Elaine Kraft.

“We’ve extended a dock here and there to get in for emergency calls” if they are needed, she said.

She noted that public parks are closed on parts of the lake where emergency response would be difficult.

A LITTLE MORE WATER FLOWS IN

An Army Corps of Engineers project allowed Cascade Water Alliance to add more water to the lake this week, Cascade spokeswoman Elaine Kraft said.

The diversion from the White River was made possible as part of a three-phase project meant to help with fish migration. To make all the repairs, river flows will be reduced around a barrier and water will be stored above the Mud Mountain Dam.

In each phase of the project, any water in excess of minimum flow requirements will be diverted into Lake Tapps.

A news release announcing the first batch of water said residents should see Lake Tapps rise at a rate of about a half foot to a foot per day for about a week.

“It will be a lot more full,” Kraft said. “They should start seeing the lake inch up hourly, and certainly day by day.”

Kraft said Cascade can’t say exactly how much water will be diverted. Once the Mud Mountain project is complete, local officials will assess safety to determine if the lake can reopen for recreation.

The second phase of the project is scheduled for June 19, Kraft added, and Cascade will repeat the process at its completion.

It’s unclear if any more water will be diverted to the lake after the third phase, she said.

Mike Gallagher, regional water resources manager for the state Department of Ecology, said his agency’s primary concern is ensuring adequate flows in the White River for fish migration, habitat and water quality.

“It’s important that rivers are maintained at certain volumes and temperatures for the overall environmental health of the river,” Gallagher said.

Ecology has issued a temporary water-rights permit to allow Cascade to capitalize on the temporary change in flows. It expires July 10.

The low water at Lake Tapps shouldn’t be a persistent problem in years to come, Gallagher said. The combination of a lack of snowfall and the lake’s dramatic drawdown created a perfect storm that’s unlikely to occur again.

Stucki holds out some hope that the water released from the Mud Mountain Dam might salvage the popular Independence Day fireworks display, which many people watch from their boats.

He said most residents have been understanding about the unusually shallow lake this year.

“People have been pretty patient so far,” he said.

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