Lake Tapps refill is delayed by flood, drought and government

By Dennis Box

The Courier-Herald

Water-starved Lake Tapps will likely stay that way for some time.

The lake was to be refilled by April 15, but due to damage to the divergence dam in January from high water, the current drought and bureaucratic snafus, Puget Sound Energy is hoping for a Memorial Day fill date.

"In mid-January flooding around the region knocked out nine wood panels on the divergence dam," PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said. "We operate the dam at the direction of the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers. No federal permission has been granted from NOAA, (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), to repair the dam. We already have a plan. It should take about half a day to make the repairs, but we can't go in if it puts the Corps or PSE in jeopardy of violating the Endangered Species Act." Thompson said he hoped the authorization would come by this week.

PSE owns the lake and divergence dam. The dam is used to divert water from White River to fill the lake through a series of flumes.

The dam also operates the Corps' fish trap. The Corps traps migrating Chinook salmon, steelhead trout and other fish.

The fish are loaded on trucks and taken around Mud Mountain Dam to spawn in the upper White River. Without the trap, the fish - including the endangered Chinook salmon - cannot pass through the dam.

According to Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney, the issue boiled to the surface at a March 10 public meeting with the Save Lake Tapps Coalition and NOAA fish biologist Steve Fransen.

"There was a heated conversation with Steve Fransen," Bunney said. "We wanted to get the dam fixed. Steve was rather catty about the department approval. We told him that was not an acceptable answer. The Department of Fish and Wildlife went above and beyond the call of duty and issued their permit in four hours."

Leon Stucki, a member of the coalition and Lake Tapps resident, said NOAA issued a letter about the project that stopped the repairs.

"They tried to piggy back some other things in a letter that was unacceptable," Stucki said. "One of the things disappointing to us was they were trying to clarify flow rates. That is a very controversial issue. Fransen said he doesn't intend to screw the project up, but he conveyed the message that it doesn't bother him it is being slowed down."

The water flow in White River is a critical issue. According to Thompson, typical flows for the river at this time of year would be 1,000 to 1,500 cubic feet per second. The river is running about 380 to 400 cfs.

Stucki said 350 cfs will be left in the river, leaving only 30 to 50 cfs to fill the lake.

"Without a storm it is a real dogfight," Stucki said. "We need an algorithm for proportioning water to more than one stake holder. When it's hurting time we have to share the hurt."

Bunney said representatives from both Rep. Dave Reichert's office and Sen. Maria Cantwell's were working on the problem.

"A teamwork approach will keep our whole agreement together," Bunney said. "It is the resilience and determination of this group (the coalition) that has kept things moving forward."

Dennis Box can be reached at

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