Lake reflects our inability to make hard choices

Invasive species flourish where conditions for reproduction are optimal and no predators discourage them from choking out native species. New Zealand Mud Snails have invaded Capitol Lake and closed it while at the same paralyzing a management process that was already grinding to a halt due to political pressure.

These days, visitors to the popular downtown destination are greeted by the smell of decaying algae and Eurasian milfoil and signs warning that the lake is closed until further notice. Flotsam and jetsam along with 35,000 cubic yards of sediment accumulate annually inside the concrete bulkhead that bears the names of Washington’s 39 counties.

The reflection of the Capitol dome—the original purpose for depriving the Deschutes River of its estuary—becomes increasingly more difficult to see. For a state whose leaders frequently proclaim their desire to restore endangered salmon and return Puget Sound to health, the irony of Capitol Lake in its current condition literally under the noses of those who have power to remedy the situation offers a pungent counterpoint.

The Capitol Lake Improvement and Protection Association (CLIPA) has wasted no opportunity to rally public support in favor of their vision of a restored lake. “Save the Lake—Preserve the Past, Improve the Future” is their tagline and like motherhood and the flag, it’s hard to be against it until you recognize that its based on questionable science and a short view of history.

A longer view suggests that the “past” CLIPA wants to preserve only goes back to 1951 when the Fifth Avenue Dam was installed or 1911 when an architect in a Manhattan office who’d never visited Olympia first floated the idea of a reflecting pool in a drawing. Examine that drawing more closely however, and you’ll notice a considerably larger isthmus with three and four story buildings and far less park space than currently exists.

As is often the case with those who quote Scripture, those who cite the Wilder and White plan are selective about which parts of it they’d like us to preserve.

Meanwhile, members of the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT) are attempting to rally decision-makers to remove the dam and restore the river’s natural and historic estuary. They remind us that the estuary has been a key ecosystem in South Puget Sound for thousands of years; considerably longer than the 63 years the dam has been in place. They also point to exhaustive, peer-reviewed scientific studies that indicate the dam puts Budd Inlet in direct violation of the Clean Water Act and that its removal is the primary action necessary to improve water quality throughout Budd Inlet.

The final report of the ill-fated Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan (CLAMP) in 2009 recommended dam removal. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife include Deschutes estuary restoration as a top priority for Puget Sound recovery.

Tribal biologists point to recent studies showing that endangered salmon from throughout Puget Sound use Budd Inlet as a nursery and would undoubtedly benefit from a restored estuary. In that case money for its restoration could be available not only through the Clean Water Act and but also through federal endangered salmon recovery funds. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will pay for maintaining an artificial, unhealthy lake besides long-suffering Washington taxpayers.

Besides the smell, what’s most noticeable is the lack of any movement. That may be due less to snails and more to decision makers reluctance to anger influential lake supporters despite overwhelming evidence in favor of a restored estuary.

One possible sign of hope is the decision by the Department of Enterprise Services (which manages the lake) to retain the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to do a situation assessment to determine whether any basis for collaboration exists. One wishes them every success. At the same time it begs the question of whether the state can summon the imagination and political will to create a newer, healthier future for the lower Deschutes River after so many years of neglect.

Those who visit the lake and love it are consigned to watching it slowly die. In that sense, Capitol Lake has become a reflecting pool, though not the one that Wilder and White envisioned.

It reflects our collective inability to make hard choices on behalf of Puget Sound — an inability that makes all our rhetoric about restoring it back to health ring hollow. For the time being, the mud snails and milfoil appear to be safe.