Resuscitating Capitol Lake

Idris Thomas II

The reflecting pond found adjacent to the Washington State Capital building in Olympia, known as Capitol Lake is beloved by the residents of the city. The lake is an artificial body of water created by the damming of the Deschutes River. The area previously served as an estuary, one of the most ecologically beneficial biomes found on Earth. Prior to settlement, native tribes would gather at the estuary to collect shellfish and fish for salmon, their cultural practices the ways in which humans and nature coexisted in a state of reciprocation. This is no longer the case, however, as people are currently banned from entering the water due to safety concerns. This is due to the quality of the water being intolerable, which can be attributed to a multitude of harsh elements. The ecological imbalance of the current Capitol Lake can be resolved through the removal of the 5th Avenue Dam. The Dam was constructed without knowledge of the future challenges the lake would face regarding pollution, and without respect for what was in the best interest of the lake.

The Olympia community’s inability to see what was best for the estuary is not unusual for the era. The settlers of America are known to appraise all non-living things to material objects. This is in stark contrast with the views of the indigenous people of America. Native Americans are much more reluctant to reduce non-living things to substances, and often define them with many of the ideals settlers would reserve exclusively for humans. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American Botanist and Eco Activist is a proponent of a different viewpoint, one in which plants, bodies of water, and even rocks are given the same respect as humans.

but extends it and redefines it in her concept of  “the grammar of animacy.” The grammar of animacy is the way in which she, and her people, look to objects and places with reverence as beings that live alongside us – even when these things are beyond or outside the conventional rules defined by the term “life.” In her words, “Saying it makes a living land into ‘natural resources.’ If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice”(Kimmerer Pg. 57). Capitol Lake was created by circumventing the Deschutes River’s natural flow downstream into the estuary and eventually the Puget Sound, a choice made by humans viewing the Deschutes as simply natural resources – something to be governed. The Deschutes is not something to be altered, harnessed, or conquered for the sake of human benefit. It is an animate being – possibly even a him, her, or them – which can both thrive as well as suffer, and settler influence has forced the latter. Human interference has directly led to the afflictions Capitol Lake faces.

There are numerous factors rooted in the construction of the 5th Avenue Dam that contribute to the lake’s water quality problems, or rather its declining health. The major component from which many of the problems are derived is that the artificial lake was built upon a natural tidal flat, an area for sediment deposition and accumulation. This means that all the sediment collected along the river’s flow gets deposited into the lake. According to Steven W. Morrison of the Thurston Regional Planning Council, knowledge of the sediment build up has been present for at least forty years. In his 2005 recap of the lake’s history, he recounts the following, “As early as 1975, the “Save a Beautiful Lake” program identified the need to address the sediment in the lake. Dredging portions of the lake occured in 1979 and 1986, but an annual maintenance dredging program was never fully funded or enacted” (Morrison). In other words, individuals in the community have been aware of the problem for decades and have yet to mount an operation in which a compromise or solution could be reached. Further tolerance of this problem will be detrimental, asCapitol Lake is essentially drowning in sediment. The sediment itself is not the only problem caused by the damming of the river; nutrients and bacteria also get deposited into the lake. In fact, the accumulation of said nutrients includes phosphorus and nitrogen, which contribute to the algal blooms that dominate the lake.

Before the introduction of the dam, Capitol Lake was part of the Deschutes estuary which served as a home for many native species. Bodies of water are often more than just flowing water; the Deschutes in particular is a living ecosystem previously defined by a healthy amount of biodiversity and abundant life. However, the nutrient pollution caused by the dam has resulted in the proliferation of harmful algal blooms. Algal blooms are a nationally recognized threat known to cause multiple dangerous effects in whatever body of water they present themselves. In Capitol Lake, the algal blooms suffocate the water, depriving it of oxygen and creating ‘dead zones’ where little to no aquatic life can survive (United States Environmental Protection Agency). This phenomenon is known as hypoxia and is the main cause of the lack of life in the lake. Whereas fish such as salmon previously utilized the estuary as a safe mediary between fresh and saltwater, the water is now unable to sustain them.

These two aspects, sediment buildup and algal bloom infestation, are both consequences of the propensity of humans to alter natural bodies of water and contort them for personal gain. In the case of Capitol Lake or rather the Deschutes estuary, the dam was put in place to control the prerogative of the river. This prerogative includes both the right of the river to flow in its natural direction, and the Deschutes’ will to exist in its inherent form. In Kimmerer’s words, “‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores…Because it could do otherwise – become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall.” (Kimmerer pg. 55) The Deschutes River did not decide to become the lake – that was the action of humans, and one that has backfired at that. The individuals who made the decision to dam the river desired to control the natural ebb and flow of the river and contain it between the shores at all times. This desire for anthropocentric hegemony is the root of the problems that Capitol Lake faces today.

The abundant nutrients accompanied by the algal infestation and sediment accumulation both contribute heavily to the lake’s anguish – drowned in sediment from below, and suffocated by the algal blooms above. The solution to these problems is to return the Deschutes River to its natural flow pattern and restore the estuary, which can be accomplished through the removal of the 5th Avenue Dam. This would result in the sediment being able to flow downstream as it used to, simultaneously allowing for the buildup over the past 60 years to diminish and terminating the accumulation of nutrients causing the algal bloom infestations. As the lake returns to a more welcoming environment, native species may return to the lake. The potential ecological benefits of removal of the 5th Ave dam and restoration of the estuary have been apparent for years, yet no change has been made. This change is the goal that the community must strive for in order to best provide for all inhabitants of our planet, from its plants to its mountains to its oceans.

Works Cited

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.


Morrison, Steven W. “In the Beginning … It Was a Tideflat.” In the Beginning … It Was a Tideflat, Thurston Regional Planning Council, 2005,

Stevens, Andrew W. “Incorporation of Fine-Grained Sediment Erodibility Measurements into Sediment Transport Modeling, Capitol Lake, Washington.” Incorporation of Fine-Grained Sediment Erodibility Measurements into Sediment Transport Modeling, Capitol Lake, Washington, 2008,