July 16, 2010
Open Letter to Federal, State and Local Officials:
The Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (“DERT”) is a newly formed non-profit organization that is dedicated to the restoration of the Deschutes Estuary. We believe, and studies have shown, that restoring the Deschutes estuary from its current incarnation as Capitol Lake would be environmentally and financially beneficial to the State and the local community. It is time for Washington State to move beyond the “lake vs. estuary” debate.
The history of Capitol Lake in Olympia reflects the times in which it developed. In the mid-20th century, damming the free flowing Deschutes River to create Capitol Lake was viewed as an answer to an “unsightly” natural mudflat environment of downtown Olympia, and as a way to eliminate some of the odor caused by the lack of sanitary facilities. The lake was welcomed as a panacea. Damming the estuary also eliminated the Little Hollywood area, a shanty village of “undesirables” built on the edge of the estuary, insinuating a class element in the decision to form a lake.
It was also believed at the time that the Capitol dome, rising above the estuary, would be permanently reflected in a freshwater pool, a vision that was borne from the existing reflection in the estuarine waters.
Historically, the estuary thrived as a healthy ecological system as well as a natural water passageway for the community. The natural scouring action of the undammed river provided some deep water areas and transported much of the annual sediment load further into the deeper parts of Budd Inlet. The marinas and port existed long before the dam was built, and deep draft ships sailed to the port and into what is now the lake.
At the time Capitol Lake was created, lack of sewage or industrial waste treatment meant that the Deschutes Estuary was polluted with human waste. That is no longer the case. Visit the other free flowing estuaries in this area, such as Nisqually Delta, Ellis Cove, Henderson Inlet, and Case Inlet, to name a few. They are vibrant, clean environments, with thriving wildlife populations and few or none of the types of problems that encouraged the damming of the Deschutes Estuary.
Capitol Lake is not a lake…it is a river attempting to reconnect with its estuary. It is not allowed to act as a naturally functioning system. As a result, Capitol Lake is choking with sediment from the Deschutes River. It is estimated that the river spills 35,000 cubic yards of sediment per year into the dammed-up basin. Capitol Lake will continue to fill up with sediment, eventually forming land around the Deschutes River that wanders through its center.
Estuaries are among the most productive habitats on earth. If the dam is removed, river sediment would naturally flush into its Puget Sound estuary. A naturally functioning Deschutes Estuary would also:
- Cool water temperature
- Substantially improve water quality in Budd Inlet
- Dramatically curtail noxious weeds and invasive species
- Provide vastly increased habitat for fish and wildlife
We believe that many of the concerns raised by opponents of estuary restoration can be addressed through an open dialogue and a willingness to thoughtfully consider the issues and potential solutions. Long-term consequences of “lake management” need to be understood to better inform decisions about the future of the Deschutes River.
At the same time, we understand interim steps may be necessary to ease the transition back to an estuarine environment. For example, after the accumulation of a half century of sediment behind the dam, some dredging would likely be needed prior to restoration to ensure that massive slugs of sediment don’t simply move downstream. Management of this ecosystem would also be better in the hands of the Department of Natural Resources or another state resource management agency, instead of its current overseer, the Department of General Administration, the state agency in charge of facilities.
Lake advocates prefer to use the term “swamp” to represent an estuarine environment. We want to clarify the ecological distinction between a swamp and the historical natural estuary: a swamp is a “wetland featuring flooding of large areas of land by shallow bodies of water” (similar to the ecological role Capital Lake plays today), while an estuary is a “partly enclosed coastal body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea, forming a transition zone between river environments and ocean environments, and are subject to both marine influences, such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water; and river influences, such as flows of fresh water and sediment.
The inflow of both seawater and freshwater provide high levels of nutrients in both the water column and sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swamp; and, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estuary.
The Puget Sound Partnership has estimated that, in this biennium, about $222 million will be spent on capital expenses and $178 million on ongoing operating expenses relating to restoring and protecting Puget Sound and the watersheds that drain into it. Many of these dollars will be spent on estuary restoration projects. Some of the restoration will happen in small scattered locations around the Sound, as bulkheads are removed and buffers of native vegetation created. Some will be large projects of a historic nature, such as removal of the Elwha Dams and the Nisqually River delta dikes.
Our communities will celebrate each of these as necessary, commendable and far sighted steps towards recovering some of the 85% of our estuaries lost to development, dams, fills, and dikes over the past 150 years.
And yet the State Capitol is the home of a dammed-up estuary that is polluted, full of invasive species, and a public health hazard. This is an obvious and potentially embarrassing public policy contradiction. How can environmental authorities and state legislators support this contradiction while encouraging, funding, and sometimes requiring restoration of other nearshore and estuarine areas?
The large expenditure of funds, while impressive, cannot succeed unless we are willing to tackle and correct obvious mistakes of the past, no matter how well intended they may have been at the time.
When Capitol Lake was created, it made sense in response to the needs of the times. What makes sense now is to respond to the needs of our current times by investing in our environmental and ecological health, and doing whatever we can to provide a clean environment for future generations.
DERT is interested in an on-going dialogue and potential legislation to restore this important south sound estuary. We are actively pursuing involvement of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in listing the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Project as viable for the receipt of federal Puget Sound restoration dollars. There is a possibility of receiving 65% of the costs of restoring the Deschutes to its natural condition, and relieving the significant long-term financial burden on the State of Washington for managing a “lake” that will continually fill up with sediment, attract invasive species, degrade water quality and present risks to human health.
Most of the funding for estuary restoration could come through federal appropriations. To our knowledge, there are no federal programs or funding available for preserving artificial lakes. With federal dollars, the state tax burden could be significantly lower if the estuary were to be restored. And of course, natural systems such as estuaries are basically maintenance free.
We want to work collaboratively with the community, industry, the port, local, state and federal governments and the tribes to help bring about the vision embraced by the Governor:
“[It is our task] to ensure that the Puget Sound forever will be a thriving natural system, with clean marine and freshwaters, healthy and abundant native species, natural shorelines and places for public enjoyment, and a vibrant economy that prospers in productive harmony with a healthy Sound.”
— Governor Christine Gregoire
Thank you for your time and consideration of this important matter. We are available to continue the discussion and assist you in any way possible to restore the Deschutes Estuary.
Sue Patnude Dave Peeler
President, DERT DERT Board Member and
Director of Programs, People for Puget Sound