Questions & Answers
What is the difference between a lake and an estuary?
Actually, Capitol Lake isn’t really a lake at all, but a shallow reservoir created by damming the Deschutes River. In 1951, the state government built the 5th Avenue dam, blocking the Deschutes River and creating Capitol Lake.
An estuary is a biologically rich environment where a river reaches salt water. Estuaries play an important role in the lives of several species, including birds and fish. Salmon depend on estuaries for vital rearing and feeding habitat. Salmon are born in freshwater, and as they move downstream they undergo a physiological change which enables them to live in saltwater. Estuaries are the first place salmon encounter saltwater and it is important that there be enough food and habitat.
Currently, the Deschutes estuary does not exist. It has been inundated by the impoundment created in the 50s. The 5th Avenue dam blocks off any meaningful interaction between salt and freshwater that defines an estuary.
Won’t draining Capitol Lake leave a big mud hole?
Restoring the Deschutes estuary won’t really “drain” Capitol Lake. Actually, most people won’t notice a difference. Most of the time, the northern basin, or the “reflecting pool,” will not look any different than it does today. Natural tidal movement will fill the lower basin “reflecting pool” almost 80 percent of the time.
Only the southern two basins will see significant drainage, but even those will be filled as they are now during high tide. By restoring the Deschutes estuary, it is possible to retain the reflecting pool aspects of Capitol Lake.
Won’t an estuary be smelly?
No, the historic smell of the former estuary was caused by untreated sewage that was dumped directly into the Deschutes estuary. Raw sewage, not the periodic exposure of mudflats by the tides, caused an intense aroma that some still associate with the original estuary. Wastewater is now treated in Olympia before it is dumped into Budd Inlet.
Isn’t it possible to have clean water and a lake?
Virtually all of the water quality issues associated with Capitol Lake exist because it is an impounded river. Invasive species, drawn to Capitol Lake’s warm, shallow and stagnant environment are taking over the lake.
During the summer, nitrogen and phosphorous build up in the lake, depriving it of oxygen, which is vital to a healthy ecosystem. A recent report by the Washington Department of Ecology states that restoring the Deschutes Estuary would solve many of the water quality problems associated with Capitol Lake (link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/11615221/CLAMP-110608-Deschutes-Handouts).
Choosing to continue maintaining Capitol Lake is choosing to live with future water quality problems.
What will restoring the estuary do to wildlife?
Restoring the estuary will benefit native species while removing many invasive species. Capitol Lake already supports a large community of wildlife and plants, but these are not species native to our area, and have gained a foothold in Capitol Lake because it is an artificial landscape (link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/5528143/CLAMPSC090408A2).
The Puget Sound Partnership has identified eradicating invasive species like the ones that live in Capitol Lake as a high priority to restoring the entire Puget Sound ecosystem (link: http://www.psparchives.com/our_work/protect_habitat/ans.htm). As it is now, Capitol Lake is a haven for invasive species.
Isn’t Capitol Lake part of the “vision” of the Capitol Campus?
No. When the architects Walter Wilder and Harry White designed the Capitol Campus, the lake was more than forty years off and their plan specifically called for a free flowing Deschutes River (link). Their vision of a reflecting pool would have entailed diking off a portion of what is now the eastern part of Capitol Lake’s north basin to create a saltwater reflecting pool. Rather than being a shallow and warm freshwater impoundment, that reflecting pool would have been routinely flushed by the tides.
The real reason behind the creation of Capitol Lake wasn’t to complete the original “Wilder and White” vision, but rather to change the image of the nearby neighborhood. Up until the early 1940s, what is now Capitol Lake was home to a shanty town called “Little Hollywood.” In 1941 Little Hollywood was dismantled and burned, and ten years later the state completed the permanent flooding of the site.
Will we be cut off from the shoreline
because of concerns of protecting the estuary?
No, while the landscape of the shoreline and uses will change, access will not be impacted. Some uses, such as recreational fishing, could improve. For example, many other local estuaries – like Kennedy Creek at Totten Inlet – are popular sport fishing sites at low tide.
Can we cheaply dredge the lake?
Dredging Capitol Lake is an expensive solution to a problem that will never be solved without allowing the original estuary to be restored. All of the sediment carried by the Deschutes River is now deposited into Capitol Lake, slowing filling it up. Estuaries, because of their tidal influence, naturally disperse sediment into the marine environment. But, because the Deschutes River is dammed, the sediment has nowhere to go.
Dredging will be a multi-million dollar undertaking each time and it only solves one problem associated with the damning of the Deschutes. Water quality, invasive species, and other problems will continue to exist even with an expensive, aggressive dredging plan.
Is this part of a radical plan to return the entire area to a pristine state?Absolutely not. One of the important things to remember that restoring the Deschutes River estuary won’t and can’t be a total restoration of the local ecosystem. Too many things – from filling in nearby tidelands to urban development – have happened and there is no reasonable way to turn back the clock.
Restoring the estuary is a simple, sensible step to restoring as much of function of the local eco-system as we can.