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Squaxin Island Tribe Works Toward Restoration of Deschutes River

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Reprinted with permissions from the Coast Salish Gathering News

The scenic 260-acre Capitol Lake by Washington State’s capitol building in Olympia looks like a fresh water, scenic lake, a perception held by many of the city’s residents.

The problem is, it’s not.

In reality it’s an artificial reservoir that was created when the state government dammed the Deschutes River in 1951. And like many such stagnant man-made reservoirs it’s plagued with problems, like pollution. Swimming in the lake is banned due to unsafe levels of E.coli contamination.

The dam was built on the estuary where the Deschutes River once met and mixed with salt water. It has obliterated the biologically rich Deschutes tidal basin.

“The estuary plays a critical role in the lives of several species, including vital salmon rearing and feeding habitat,” fish biologist Jeff Dickison said. “Sediment accumulated, and nutrients started accumulating. Warm stagnant, shallow water and a lack of flushing by salt-water invited invasive species, algae blooms. Hypoxia suffocated fish, crabs, invertebrates. Pretty much anything that could go wrong, did.” To contain invasive plants and animals that have taken over the lake, boating and fishing is forbidden.

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Dickison is assistant natural resources director of the Squaxin Island Tribe, which has worked toward a restoration plan “in one form or another” for years. He sees it as a rare opportunity to restore one of the Puget Sound’s wetlands.

“The Sound lost a large percentage of its wetlands due to development, and there are very few opportunities to restore wetlands to gain back some of what’s been lost. This is one of those few opportunities,” he said.

Restoration is controversial. Community groups have formed to advocate for and against it. But Dickison said no scenario will make it a better lake.

“You can’t dredge it deep enough, you can’t kill off all the invasive plants, there’s really no way you can make it like a fresh water lake. It’s perpetuating a myth.”

A recent Washington Department of Ecology report states that restoring the estuary would solve many of the water quality problems associated with Capitol Lake.

A decision in 2009 by the tribe, local and state agencies is to leave the lake as is until 2013, and is contained the Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan (click to download .pdf file).