Water fight

A new political group spawns an initiative to hurt water hogs and save salmon.

THE SEATTLE CITY Council made it more costly to be a water hog this week, but a group of determined activists is hoping to make the city's water policy even more progressive.

On Monday the council raised the price for Seattleites who use a lot of water in their homes and on their yards. With Seattle being less soggy than usual and under increasing judicial pressure to preserve salmon habitats, it is hoped that the higher price will encourage water conservation. By sharply increasing water rates for the heaviest users—who, ironically, last year included the council's president and chief water maven, Margaret Pageler and the head of Seattle's water department, Diana Gale—the city hopes to cut down on water usage during peak summer months.

That's not good enough for Yes For Seattle, a band of environmental activists that includes lawyer Knoll Lowney, political consultant John Wyble, and People for Puget Sound's Pam Johnson. The group has launched Initiative 63, which would not only charge water hogs even higher rates but would use the funds raised to retrofit low-income residences with the latest in high-tech water conservation measures, such as low-flow toilets, showerheads, and faucets. In addition, I-63 specifies that water saved through the city's conservation measures would remain in Seattle's two watersheds for the benefit of salmon, rather than being sold to the suburbs. According to Lowney, "The level of conservation in suburbs is not matching Seattle's." Under the city's plan, he says, "[Conserved water] isn't going to salmon. It's going to growth. They're not planning to put [it] back in the river."

While Pageler was not able to comment before this article's deadline, she demonstrated her hostility to the initiative last month at a public hearing on water issues by barking at Lowney repeatedly when he tried to raise the issues addressed in I-63. Beyond the dustup at the hearing, Lowney thinks there's a far more basic reason for Pageler and the city bureaucracy's hostile reception: Yes For Seattle itself.

The group was spawned last winter mostly by environmental advocates, many of whom are also experienced local campaign activists. In early March, they commissioned a poll that tested about a dozen progressive initiative ideas with Seattle voters. To their surprise, voters supported all of them; the best-scoring helping-salmon-through-water-conservation idea, which eventually became I-63, drew 72 percent approval.

The results cemented the activists' determination to form Yes For Seattle and confirmed Wyble's suspicion that, "We, as the voters, [are] much more progressive than [Seattle's] elected officials. We should have much more progressive leadership than we do. The city needs a kick in the pants, and a well-run initiative organization can be part of that process."

I-63 is the first initiative campaign of many that Yes For Seattle hopes to run. The idea, says Wyble, is to mirror the success of conservative initiative guru Tim Eyman: to use one or two initiative campaigns each year to change the dynamics of local public policy. The first campaign, Lowney says, is environmental in its focus to draw on Yes For Seattle's base and to establish a successful track record, but the group's dreams are far broader. "We've got some policy ideas we want to explore. Right now we're going to play it by ear and see how it goes," says Lowney. "Outside the initiative process, we still want to influence city policy."

Yes For Seattle has until early July to collect the 18,000 valid signatures needed to put the initiative before the voters in November. If I-63 makes the ballot, depending on the level of opposition, Lowney estimates that the group may need to spend up to $100,000 to win its first campaign. Yes For Seattle wants to set the agenda for local politics, but Wyble notes, "To keep this thing going, we've got to be running campaigns." If they succeed, far more than Seattle water bills may change as a result.

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

To contact Yes For Seattle or the I-63 campaign, call 956-8050 or visit www.yesforseattle.org.

 
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