A river in danger?

A national green group plays political hardball with the Cedar River.

There’s a new top 10 list Seattle officials aren’t happy to find their city on.

The Cedar River, source of most of the city’s drinking water, has been ranked no. 6 on a national environmental group’s list of the 10 Most Endangered American Rivers. Seattle owns more than 90,000 acres of the watershed surrounding the Cedar and is currently assembling a 50-year habitat conservation plan for its land holdings.

City officials grumble that the rating is about politics, not any legitimate threat to the environment. In issuing the rating, American Rivers specifically makes reference to the dispute over how much water the city should be allowed to remove from the Cedar, site of the nation’s largest sockeye salmon run. Mayor Paul Schell intends to issue his Cedar River plan recommendations next month.

“It’s not easy to understand these flow issues—they’re difficult,” admits Katherine Ransel, director of the Northwest regional office of American Rivers. “We’re trying to shine a light on it as a matter of public information.”

Scientists have identified a minimum required flow on the Cedar for fish survival, which they peg at about 30 percent of today’s average flow. The city’s public utilities department wants any flow above this minimum to be designated for city use—though they claim they have no plans for using this extra capacity. Right now, the city diverts only about 30 percent of the river’s average flow for water users.

To organizations like American Rivers who claim we’re going to drink the river dry, Diana Gale, director of Seattle Public Utilities, replies that Seattle has actually decreased the amount of water it takes from the river in recent years. At the same time, the city has been improving its other water resources, including adding a new filtration plant on the Tolt River. The city wants to avoid a hard cap on water diversion to allow for flexibility in operating its water system, argues Gale. “There is no plan under discussion that would increase the water-for-people use from the Cedar over the next 25 years.”

But environmentalists question why the city is so interested in gaining capacity it doesn’t plan to use. “The river is not going to be a healthy river if it’s just operating at minimum flows,” says Charlie Raines of the Sierra Club. “Seems to me that if they have a water right claim that’s three times what they’re using today and they’re adamant about maintaining that—that’s not for flexibility, that’s for growth.”

The city’s critics say the Cedar River habitat conservation plan (HCP), which will be scrutinized by federal regulators under the Endangered Species Act, is a potentially precedent-setting document and could affect salmon-enhancement efforts across the region. Under federal law, the conditions that the HCP places on the city cannot be modified or tightened during the 50-year term of the plan. Some environmentalists also insist that the city impose tougher water conservation policies—especially on suburban users. Twenty-eight suburban cities get all or part of their water from Seattle.

The Muckleshoot tribe, which has fishing rights in Lake Washington and the Cedar, wants to see the city’s water diversion capped for at least six years, until further studies can determine the effect of diversion on the river’s salmon run. The Muckleshoots argue that recent studies have shown that the survival rate of sockeye fry entering Lake Washington soars as the water flow is increased. King County Executive Ron Sims, who is coordinating county efforts to save salmon, has joined the tribe in calling for the temporary cap.

City Council member Margaret Pageler says the salmon questions have been studied for the last dozen years, and the Muckleshoots and the county are more interested in assembling power than saving salmon. “It would put a number of other agencies and interests as gatekeepers and toll-takers the next time we want an increment of water,” she told her fellow council members at last week’s briefings meeting.

But American Rivers acknowledges only more straightforward political motives—swaying Schell, who has already come down on their side by opposing any harvesting of timber on city-owned land in the watershed. The mayor has not yet staked out a position on the flow issue. “The price of leadership is that you may win a tremendous amount of praise, but that brings with it scrutiny,” says Ransel. “We think the mayor has all those leadership qualities and he’s going to truly demonstrate them on this issue.”