Future of Lake Tapps looks spectacularly soggy

LAKE TAPPS, Wash. -- The boat cruises by with smiling faces aboard as it skips across the flat water of Lake Tapps. While you might visit Lake Tapps regularly for boating or swimming, there’s more to this body of water than meets the eye.

This lake, which is technically a reservoir, no longer does the wild swings in water levels every year. The mission of this body of water has changed —and signs point to these changes being better for not only those who live along the lake, but the entire region.

“For wave and wind action, we try to lower the lake in the winter in case we do get a big rainstorm,” says Joe Mickelson.

He’s the dam manager here at Lake Tapps. He oversees the 13 earthen dykes that keep water within Lake Tapps' 45 miles of shoreline. He also coordinates environmental restoration and aquatic weed control — and making sure this lake doesn’t leak too much.

“Every earthen dyke leaks,” says Mickelson, “so you have x amount of water that’s leaking, making sure that we’re not having any issues with it over-leaking.”

Lake Tapps was originally four small natural lakes that Puget Sound Energy made into one giant one in 1911— with a new surface area that's four-and-a-half square miles of inlets and coves.

“Back when Puget Sound Energy owned it, it was designed to be a power supply facility,” says Lloyd Warren. He’s a commissioner with the Sammamish Plateau Water District, explaining why the lake used to be drained nearly dry every winter. “So their objective was to take as much water from the river and generate as much electricity as possible.”

The Sammamish Plateau District is one of two utilities and five cities that have combined their efforts to buy Lake Tapps in 2010. The others are Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue, Issaquah, Tukwila and Skyway Water and Sewer District. Together, they make up Cascade Water Alliance.

With the new ownership of the lake, the mission here changed, too. They now take far less water out of the White River to keep Lake Tapps more full during the year. More water in the river is better for endangered salmon and the orcas that rely on them.

Cleaner water here is also the new goal if it’s to be used for the booming populations of those cities that currently get water from the city of Seattle. And cleaner water is beneficial for humans and wildlife as well.

“Even with climate change,” says Warren, “we think we have enough resource for a long time to come.”

And while Cascade Water Alliance guarantees summer recreation levels for residents and visitors — they have a right to future usage of 40 million gallons of water per day - that is, if they ever need to tap it at all.

“Because the region is doing quite well on our conservation,” says Warren, “it’s kind of a cultural perspective on the value of water as a resource for salmon and part of our everyday life. We are using generally less water now that we did three or four decades ago.”

This aquatic resource could also be tapped in the event of an earthquake, pumping or trucking water downhill to communities in need.  And in the meantime, this fourth busiest lake in the state remains a great place to come fish or just frolic.

Joe Mickelson might be working while others are at play here — but he says Lake Tapps is still the best office around.

“I pinch myself every day,” says Mickelson. “It’s a great place to work and great people to work with.”

The fact that Lake Tapps has not yet been tapped speaks volumes about how little conservation efforts can go a long way. Low flow shower heads, energy-efficient appliances like washing machines and dishwashers — all add up to Washingtonians using less water per capita than they did 40 years ago.

The City of Seattle has to give Cascade Water Alliance a 15-year notice if they’ll be turning off the water flow for those suburban municipalities. But, plans for a water treatment facility and pumping station are all ready to go.