Going with the Flow

From its hydroelectric past to its recreational present to its possible future as a source of municipal drinking water — here is everything you ever wanted to know about Lake Tapps

My husband and I grew up in a small town hidden away in Pennsylvania’s dense Pocono Mountains. It was one of many such towns surrounding a large man-made lake originally created to harness hydroelectric power. Many homes, businesses, beaches, forests, and even our high school football field abutted the massive body of water. 

A few decades and two children later, we found ourselves in the much more densely populated Greater Seattle area searching for a home. We were on the hunt for something with four bedrooms and a sizable backyard, but what we really desired was to give our children the simple life growing up on the lake that we had. 

Enter Lake Tapps. It had everything we remembered from our childhood. Highly rated schools with small class sizes. Check. Winding country roads. Yup. Both forests and wide-open spaces. You bet. And of course, there’s the lake. 

Nestled between Auburn and Bonney Lake, Lake Tapps is a recreationist’s dream at 15 miles wide and with 4.5 miles of surface area on which one can canoe, jet ski, fish, paddle board, or enjoy Fourth of July fireworks from a pontoon party boat. The 45 miles of shoreline predominantly abuts private waterfront homes, with a few public access points scattered around its perimeter. 

Other than that, I knew little of our new lake, so I endeavored to learn more. 

It turns out, the region looked very different in the early 1900s. Lake Tapps actually was formed from four smaller lakes, which include Lake Kirtley, Lake Crawford, Church Lake, and Lake Tapps. And the word “Tapps” itself is an acronym that stands for Tacoma and Puget Power Systems. 

In 1911, Puget Sound Power and Light — the predecessor of what we know today as Puget Sound Energy or PSE — constructed a series of dikes into the existing landscape of forests and farms around the four lakes. A series of dams was then built, and a 12-mile flume diverted Mount Rainier meltwater from the White River to fill the massive reservoir. 

You’ve likely guessed the purpose for this endeavor by now: power. Water from the Lake Tapps reservoir would flow through underground pipes down to a powerhouse on East Valley Highway between Auburn and Sumner and through giant turbines to generate hydroelectric power before it would once again rejoin the White River. 

This process continued until 2004, when PSE halted all power production on the White River–Lake Tapps project due to licensing disputes with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Today, that same dam system feeding Lake Tapps, known as Mud Mountain Dam, is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control within the Puyallup River basin. 

With this history in mind, I wondered who or what controlled Lake Tapps these days. With some easy sleuthing, it wasn’t hard to deduce that it was now owned by the Cascade Water Alliance — a municipal corporation that owns not only the water, but the lakebed and the shoreline between the water and the 545-foot elevation line. So, I reached out to learn more. 

Cascade’s Intergovernmental and Communications Director Elaine Kraft agreed to meet with me on a warm, sunny afternoon at the Island Lodge on Tapps Island for an informal introduction to Cascade’s history, its current operations, and its intended future uses of Lake Tapps. 

The Cascade Water Alliance, Kraft explained, is made up of five cities — Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, Issaquah, and Tukwila — and the sewer and water districts of the Sammamish Plateau and Skyway. 

The alliance was first formed in April 1999, when the rapidly growing Eastside cities were faced with the possibility that Seattle’s water supply could not accommodate their growth in perpetuity. This had a lot of Eastsiders concerned over their future, according to Kraft. 

This included Don Davidson, former Cascade board member and former mayor of Bellevue. “We were growing. We needed water. We wanted a voice and a vote and to control our own destiny,” Davidson wrote in a statement of the events leading up to the forming of the alliance.

Cascade looked at several options across the Eastside and into the South Sound, eventually alighting on Lake Tapps. In 2009, it purchased the White River–Lake Tapps Reservoir Project from Puget Sound Energy to meet its projected future water needs. 

“Everything that is done on Lake Tapps is done with an eventual eye for municipal water supply,” Kraft said. 

One of Cascade’s priorities to ensure healthy water is working closely with the residents of Lake Tapps to ensure best practices are observed in yard care, septic maintenance, dock construction, and recreation. 

After all, fertilizer run-off from residents’ yards combined with the warmer water temperatures associated with global warming could lead to toxic algae blooms like those found in the reservoir in 2016. 

In return for adherence to its rules, Cascade promises residents to maintain a seasonal recreational reservoir water level at a maximum elevation of 543 feet, two feet lower than its own property line. 

If you’ve ever seen Lake Tapps during the winter months, you know that the same level is not guaranteed year-round. In the fall, Cascade often will cease adding additional water to the reservoir, and usually around Nov. 1, will begin to actively lower levels farther, to approximately 540 feet. 

In the winter of 2014-15, water levels famously reached historic lows due to an intentional draw-down to perform infrastructure improvements. This drew many curious residents and Josh Trujillio, then photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, whose photographs revealed a hidden trove of long-forgotten items. 

These included the detritus one might expect, like beer cans, sunglasses, and the occasional shoe, but also exposed a cassette tape, a lost boat motor, and the still-standing remains of a train trestle. 

Though such an extreme draw-down is unlikely for the foreseeable future, Cascade recently announced on its website that it plans to drop levels to 537 feet on Dec. 26 to allow Pierce County to perform upgrades to its bulkhead at North Tapps Park. Work is expected to last approximately six weeks, and Cascade hopes to begin its 2020 fill in mid-February, with an expected maximum elevation in time for Memorial Day. 

And next summer, when I sit on a gently rocking dock and feel the warm sun on my face while I listen to my children splash and play, I’ll be able to tell them the history and evolution of Lake Tapps. Hopefully this will serve to deepen their appreciation of their hometown and its lake.

Lake Tapps Stats

Created: 1911

The four lakes that existed before the reservoir was created: Church Lake, Lake Kirtley, Lake Crawford, and Lake Tapps 

Surface area: 4.5 square miles

Miles of shoreline: 45 miles

Maximum depth: 90 feet 

Surface temperature: Approximately 60 to 70 degrees

Below-surface temperature: Approximately 50 degrees

Fish Stock: Largemouth and smallmouth bass, tiger muskies, yellow perch, and black crappie

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is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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