The Economic and Recreational Benefits of the Removal of the 5th Avenue Dam

Elijah Aosved
Wood aerial photo

Capitol Lake has been a community gathering place for more than 60 years. In the Lake’s infancy, it was a place where community members could swim and boat. Now, the lake is a eutrophic mess of algae and invasive species, dangerous enough to the health of citizens that swimming is completely banned. It is clear that something must be done for the preservation of community involvement in Olympia’s slice of the Deschutes. The 5th Avenue Dam should be removed and the lake left to return to its natural state as an estuary, providing citizens with a place to be surrounded with nature. Restoring the estuary will provide Olympia with economic benefits and will provide a positive change to recreational activities.

For years the indigenous tribes native to this land have requested that the dam be removed in order to allow for more salmon to survive and breed. Environmental groups have also asked for the dam’s removal, as they claim that the eutrophic lake full of invasive species is an environmental issue which should be replaced with a natural and healthy estuary ecosystem. However, Olympia community members have expressed concerns. They question how the dam’s removal will impact their day to day lives and their enjoyment of the natural space that is Capitol Lake, and doubt the positive economic impacts of removing the 5th Avenue Dam.

In order to successfully remove the dam, communities of people from different backgrounds must come to an agreement about their environment. The natural world must be considered as a partner in the agreement with humans working together to protect the Deschutes River ecosystem. Carolyn Merchant in her book Reinventing Eden offers ways that groups with diverse interests can work together to create a better space for all, calling on the philosophy of a partnership ethic. A partnership ethic described by Merchant focuses on equality between the human and non-human agents in each ecosystem, and an emphasis on allowing all a seat at the table when a change to the environment is concerned. She describes a similar scenario to the Deschutes dam removal that occured on the Columbia River when a partnership started by the Northwest Power Planning Council that consisted of interest groups such as Native American tribes, environmental activists, and various corporations created a habitat restoration plan that allowed salmon populations to thrive again without damaging the economic viability of the Columbia (Merchant, 235). Here in Olympia, the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team and the Squaxin Island tribes should meet with Olympia’s community members and members of the Capitol Lake Improvement & Protection Association (CLIPA) to come to an agreement about a future of the Deschutes estuary that considers our human needs as well as our struggling salmon population. Adopting a partnership focused ethic will allow the Port and various waterside businesses to bring their concerns forward, while allowing community members to have a say in what kind of recreational activities will still occur along the water as restoration efforts commence.

Although the estuary wetlands will naturally be different than Capitol Lake, community activities will still occur in the newly restored estuary. One proposed outcome of this restoration will be the construction of a boardwalk through the estuary. This will allow many different human activities, such as dog walking or bird watching, to continue. This revived wetland will also be an economic boon to Olympia. The Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study in 2016 that examined the benefits that wetlands such as estuaries provide to nearby towns and communities and found that wetlands offer numerous advantages to humans. The EPA states in the publication Economic Benefits to Wetlands that “Wetlands are often inviting places for popular recreational activities including hiking, fishing, bird watching, photography and hunting. More than 82 million Americans took part in these activities in 2001, spending more than $108 billion on these pursuits” (EPA, 2-3). What this data shows to us is the return of the estuary will provide significant economic benefits to Olympia from tourists coming to hike or birdwatch there. On the other hand, Capitol Lake – rotting under a thick layer of algae – doesn’t provide Olympia with any real economic benefit. In fact, it is a detriment economically, as the lake must be periodically dredged to remove silt and other debris that piles up there due to the damming of the Deschutes – a cost that ultimately falls on Olympia’s citizen taxpayers.

Some groups argue that the dam shouldn’t be removed because the resulting estuary will cause silt and debris to flow into Budd Inlet, which will require the marinas and ports along the Inlet to perform regular dredging. Although this is definitely a negative consequence, the cost of dredging Budd Inlet is significantly lower than that of regular maintenance of Capitol Lake as it stands now. In July of 2009, the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services completed a report analyzing different restoration alternatives. They reported:

“By far the highest cost is associated with the Managed Lake Alternative. The total cost to implement this alternative, based on a comparison of the low cost estimates, is 70 percent higher than the Estuary Alternative…a smaller quantity of new sediment will require active management under the Estuary Alternatives than previously estimated. This is because a large portion was predicted to be deposited in areas of Budd Inlet where it creates no disturbance” (DES 55-56).

The analysis performed by the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services refutes several claims that have been made by different interest groups. CLIPA claims that a managed lake with regular dredging is the way to approach the problems of Capitol Lake, but as the report states, this option leads to a significantly higher cost to taxpayers and The City of Olympia over time, up to seventy percent more. The concerns about sediment buildup in Budd Inlet, while valid, are mitigated by the fact that up to 30 percent of the sediment flow in the 2009 estuary model will not be deposited in areas that are significant to the marinas and Port (DES 20). According to the analysis, the sediment will instead flow out north of the Port and marinas. In addition, less work will have to be done annually to maintain the estuary than the managed lake, and the total amount of sediment removed with the estuary model is far lower, around 104,000 cy less (DES 19).

Capitol Lake as it is now will eventually fill up with silt and debris if it is not managed in some way, ultimately ending any hope of water-based recreation on the Deschutes. A benefit to the estuary restoration is that popular recreational activities on the water, such as kayaking, will be able to expand. The complete restoration of the estuary would allow for a single waterway from the Deschutes falls to Budd Inlet which watercraft up to small sailing craft would be able to utilize at high tides. This connectivity would create new pathways for boating, possibly increasing public interest in watercraft activities. Boating events and traditional sailing in Budd Inlet would not be negatively impacted, and fishing in the Deschutes would also improve, as the connectivity of the Deschutes without the 5th Avenue Dam would allow several marine fish such as flounder to be caught alongside salmon species (DES 61). The restoration of the estuary will significantly improve recreational activities on the water.

A partnership of diverse community interests that considers the environment of the Deschutes as an equal partner needs to be adopted. The restoration of the life-giving estuary will save millions of dollars for taxpayers in the long run, and will provide various outdoors activities for Olympians as well. , Hiking trails and a boardwalk will allow pedestrians to enjoy nature, the new 5th Avenue Bridge constructed in place of the dam will allow better bike access, and water based activities such as kayaking could thrive The 5th Avenue Dam removal will usher in a new era for Olympia, one where nature and humans are more entwined.

Works Cited

“Capitol Lake Alternatives Analysis Final Report.”, Washington State Department of Enterprise Services, 2009,

“Economic Benefits of Wetlands.”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Feb. 2016,

Merchant, Carolyn. Reinventing Eden: the Fate of Nature in Western Culture. Routledge, 2013.