Salmon and suburbs struggle over a Washington river

  • Cedar River in Washington

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Fisheries biologist and Pugent Sound chinook salmon meet

    Allan Solonsky photo

Note: two sidebar articles accompany this feature: "The king of fish" and "The secretary speaks."

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 suburbs.

"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 beyond.

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 city.

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 century.

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 fish.

A crucial watershed

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.

"It's 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 salmon.

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 fish.

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 mid-July.

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 begins.

The elephant in the room

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 claim.

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 river.

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.

"The bottom line is, we think that the river needs water," says Coccoli.

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 Utilities.

"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.

"Over 50 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 migration.

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.

Raines 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?"

Is it enough?

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.

"We 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.

Fresh says 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 river.

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 country.

"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.

Utilities biologist 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.

Continues Erckmann, "Some of the controversial issues have come up very late in the process."

The distance remaining

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."

Several 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 resolved.

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 notice.

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 agreement."

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