CEDAR FALLS, Wash. - In this valley at the foot of the Washington Cascades, 40 minutes' drive southeast of Seattle when traffic is light, the Cedar River runs clear and cold. Slipping over its bed of cobble and gravel as it heads down toward the Pacific, the river is bright and clear, the essence of what a mountain river is supposed to be.
Behind a small
dam next to a blue concrete building, Seattle Public Utilities
captures a share of this river. Through 1,800 miles of pipes, the
utility delivers water to homes and businesses in Seattle and its
"Seattle was lucky when it chose the
Cedar for its water supply," says Ralph Naess, a naturalist with
the utility. "This land makes good water." He gestures toward the
forested slopes above the dam and the blue peaks of the mountains
Seattle is one of only a handful of major
U.S. cities with a source of water clean enough to make most
chemical treatments unnecessary. If you turn on a tap in downtown
Seattle, the water that pours out is almost the same as it was when
it left its mountain riverbed.
This cold, clean
water is home to the Puget Sound chinook, which was listed as
threatened under the Endangered Species Act last March. It's the
first time the law has been applied broadly to habitat near a major
The listing has brought the city's Cedar
River Habitat Conservation Plan under intense scrutiny. If the
federal government approves the plan later this year, Seattle will,
for the first time, have to adhere to a set of rules about how much
water to leave in the river. But the city will also gain a
guaranteed right to a large part of the river's flow - at the very
least, more than 100 million gallons each day - for the next half
Aspects of the plan have gained broad
support, even from some environmental groups usually suspicious of
such plans. But the plan has also attracted criticism from those
who want more water to flow downstream. It's not just the usual
list of environmental groups but also King County, the Muckleshoot
Tribe and the Army Corps of Engineers. After the city takes its
share, they say, there might not be enough water for
The Cedar River's chinook population is
not the largest salmon run in the state, but it is significant, and
biologists think the river is crucial to the survival and recovery
of chinook in the region. The river also harbors coho and sockeye
salmon and ocean-going steelhead trout, a close cousin of salmon.
None of the three populations are federally protected, but they've
all declined significantly in recent years.
probably going to be one of the biggest bangs for the buck in the
region," Tim Stearns of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition says of
the Cedar River. "Especially in this urbanized area, it's a huge
addition in terms of restoration of former chinook habitat."
The salmon listing has generated little of the
fierce opposition that the listings of the spotted owl and marbled
murrelet created in rural areas earlier in the decade. To many in
the Pacific Northwest, the fish - hook-nosed, silver, fighting its
way upstream - symbolizes the region's richness and wildness.
Although news reports warn of higher water and sewer bills, it
seems that most people in clean, green Seattle want to save the
That includes Mayor Paul Schell. While
many local officials in rural Washington fight the economic effects
of endangered species listings on their towns and counties, Schell
has a different constituency. As a result, he's largely sided with
The Seattle City Council released its
draft plan for Cedar River in December, a hefty document
representing six years of work and covering 83 species. The council
wanted to raise money for the plan through selective logging in the
city-owned watershed, but Schell proposed banning all logging in
the 90,000-acre area.
It was a popular move.
Environmentalists cheered, and the Seattle Times asked, "Would you
rather chop down 65,000 trees a year in a vast forest or add the
equivalent of the price of a tall latte to your yearly water bill?"
The council adopted Schell's proposal in
With a political landscape like this,
it sounds as if the salmon might be home free. But while the
logging ban will protect the water's quality, it doesn't affect the
amount of water left in the river. Salmon need water, and so does
Seattle. This is where the real debate
The elephant in the
The Muckleshoot Tribe, which holds fishing
rights in the Cedar River, says the city's conservation plan
doesn't go far enough. "The heart of the (Cedar River plan) is not
trees ... othing like that," says Holly Coccoli, a fisheries
biologist with the tribe. "Instream flow is the heart of it, but
it's the least understood part of the plan and the part that's
receiving the least attention. It's the elephant in the room."
The 50-year, $83 million Cedar River plan
includes guaranteed instream flows - the amount of water that
Seattle Public Utilities will allow to flow past its diversion dam.
The city's draft plan would have given Seattle up to 300 million
gallons a day, the city's historic water
After the mayor's prodding, that limit has
been reduced to 150 million gallons a day, or about 35 percent of
the river's average flow. The current plan says that the remainder
of Seattle's claim will be used for the benefit of the
But the tribe and several environmental
groups want the city to keep water withdrawals at current levels,
about 105 million gallons each day, until further studies show
whether taking more water will harm fish.
bottom line is, we think that the river needs water," says
The tribe's proposal appeals to many
people who are wary of a long-term agreement in a city with a
swelling population. As time goes by, more water is likely to go to
Seattle's suburbs; already, more people outside than inside the
city limits get their water from Seattle Public
"We're concerned that the additional
water will be used for sprawl," says Charlie Raines of the Sierra
Club's Cascades Chapter. While water conservation programs have
actually decreased demand within the city in recent years, such
programs are missing in many suburbs.
years, Seattle will take more water out of the river," says Army
Corps of Engineers biologist Merri Martz. "Right now, they bring
flows down to the minimum only during the driest months - July and
August - but in the future they could do so more often, conceivably
May through September." The months when humans use the most water
and nature provides the least are also the prime time for salmon
Jim Erckmann of Seattle Public
Utilities, who has been project manager for the plan since its
inception, disagrees. "Our projections are that diversions will be
pretty flat over the next 10 years." Water conservation and new
sources will help the city meet increased demand without taking
much more water from the Cedar, he says.
says that 10 years would be plenty of time to do the necessary
chinook studies and get conservation programs in place in Seattle's
suburbs. "So why not put it in writing?"
Part of the problem is that nobody knows
what chinook actually need to survive. And during the 50-year life
of the plan, there will be few chances to change the instream flow
regime if new data show it's bad for fish.
happen to know less about chinook than any other species on the
Cedar," says Kurt Fresh, a biologist with the Washington Department
of Fish and Wildlife who has been studying salmon in and around
Lake Washington for almost a decade.
that scientists don't know exactly where in the river adult chinook
spawn in autumn, where the young fish spend their time in the few
weeks or months between hatching and heading to the sea, or exactly
how much water it takes to get them down the
These uncertainties led the the
Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers to put the Cedar River on
its list of the 10 most endangered rivers in the
"The plan is poised to be a model for
how we might deal with these issues in the future, and every part
of it needs to be very carefully looked at," says Katherine Ransel
of the group's Seattle office. "We need to make sure we have
chinook life-cycle needs woven into this decision."
Some critics also worry about how the proposed
flows will affect salmon restoration projects downstream. Although
the Cedar River inside the city's watershed is relatively
unspoiled, the lower part has reinforced banks, culverts and flood
control structures along much of its length. King County, which
manages this part of the river, wants to get started on a series of
habitat restoration projects.
But King County
ecologist Gino Lucchetti says, "We have no idea if the flows that
are going to be provided will allow us to see the full benefits of
restoration." Nor will the county's plan to buy up the best
remaining areas along the lower Cedar help fish if there isn't
enough water in the river.
Erckmann bristles at the suggestion that chinook weren't considered
in the plan.
"We did look at chinook," he says.
But when work on the plan began, Erckmann says, the chinook were
not yet listed, and the National Marine Fisheries Service didn't
think studies were needed on chinook in the Cedar River. Those
involved with the plan were focused on listed species such as the
spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. News of the salmon crisis was
a trickle, not the torrent it is today.
Erckmann, "Some of the controversial issues have come up very late
in the process."
Environmentalists say the mayor's
recent changes have helped, but most still have reservations. "It's
not a comfortable position to be criticizing a proposal that's
substantially better than it was before; but if we're going to have
it for 50 years, it's got to be great," says the Sierra Club's
Charlie Raines. "The city has basically dug in its heels and said
that's as far as they're going to go."
groups, including Washington Trout and Friends of the Earth, have
appealed the Cedar River plan, arguing that scientists still don't
know if the flow regime will provide enough protection for fish.
The tribe may also appeal. A federal decision on the city's plan is
delayed until the environmentalists' appeal is
When the federal agencies do make a
decision, environmental groups, Indian tribes, and city, county and
state governments along the West Coast who are drafting plans for
salmon protection and recovery will put down their pens and take
So will many Seattle-area residents who
are anxious to understand how the chinook salmon listing will
affect their daily lives.
But the Cedar River
plan isn't just about salmon. "If you stand back and look at the
big picture, it will be a major contribution to the conservation of
many species," says utilities biologist Erckmann. "If you compare
it to some of the other HCPs, it's really going to stand out."
Even some critics might agree. "What people are
arguing over is something that could easily be fixed," says county
biologist Lucchetti. "They're not that far from a really good