Troubled waters

Federal agency may endanger Seattle's drinking water.

SLEET SIZZLED on the high-voltage power lines overhead as a contingent of Seattle city officials and environmentalists stood on a bluff overlooking the Cedar River—whose mountain rapids supply most of Seattle's drinking water—and sized up their hosts from the Bonneville Power Administration. City officials, local greens, and Bonneville are engaged in a three-way face-off over the future of Seattle's drinking water and the endangered chinook salmon. The battle is taking place over the 90,000-acre Cedar River watershed that just two years ago the city promised to preserve from logging forever.

Bonneville, the federal agency that operates major hydroelectric dams on the Columbia, says it needs to clear-cut a nine-mile, 150-foot-wide swath of timber through the heart of the city-owned watershed to string a new transmission line. Because Bonneville is a federal agency, it has the power to seize the land through eminent domain. But Biodiversity Northwest, the group that spearheaded the campaign to ban logging in the watershed, is trying to figure out a way to stop Bonneville. City officials have adopted a negotiating position, hoping to wrench concessions from the feds. Last week, Bonneville representatives came to town to persuade Seattle that the agency can build the line at minimal cost to the environment. They even took officials—including Seattle City Council utilities czar Margaret Pageler—up in a helicopter to inspect the proposed route.

The most immediate threat the city faces from the new power line is to its water supply, one of only a handful in the nation that's naturally pure enough that it doesn't have to be treated. That's not by accident: Seattle has invested millions upon millions of dollars purchasing the land that drains into the Cedar and rehabilitating its vegetation.

But an untreated water supply is also highly vulnerable, say officials at Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), which manages the watershed. Standing on a small bridge over the Cedar, SPU watershed manager Suzy Flagor points downstream toward the gates that collect the city's water. She explains that the city would only have hours to close those gates to prevent contaminants like fuel or soil, which may be accidentally dumped in the stream during Bonneville's proposed construction, from entering Seattle's drinking water. Once in, the contaminants could create expensive problems for the city: If federal regulators were to find the city's water carrying too much pollution more than twice in a year, Seattle would be forced to build a treatment plant at a cost of roughly $250 million.

Bonneville's Lou Driessen says that his agency understands the precarious nature of the project. He promises that the agency will carry its transmission towers in by helicopter and even haul out felled trees by air to avoid truck traffic in the watershed.

But city officials don't want mere promises from Bonneville; they want insurance. Bonneville may have eminent domain over the city's land, but Pageler says that the city can insist that the feds pay for a new water treatment plan if the agency's project degrades the Cedar River.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, don't like talk of accepting the Bonneville line as an inevitable intrusion on the watershed, home to Puget Sound chinook salmon, bears, cougars, and marbled murrelets. Biodiversity Northwest has been busy commissioning freelance consultants to poke holes in the environmental report produced by Bonneville showing acceptable impact from the power line. (That report, incidentally, doesn't address the danger to water quality.) The hope, says Biodiversity's Michael Shank, is that the environmental agencies that signed off on Bonneville's project—the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service—can be persuaded to rethink their position.

For the time being, says city watershed planner Clay Antieau, the city prefers to sit at the table with Bonneville and try to produce a deal—which may include 1,000 acres that the feds would purchase for the city adjacent to the watershed—that will produce a "net benefit" to the watershed as a whole. Antieau says the city would obviously prefer that Bonneville choose a route outside the watershed, but he argues that the city has the power to force an acceptable project. "The city could make Bonneville's life really difficult, because we have to comply with federal regulations for water quality, so [Bonneville] is obligated to look out for the city," says Antieau. Which is not to say, he adds, that the city would rule out a lawsuit if Bonneville's environmental impact study is demonstrably flawed, or if the power line will, in fact, constitute a threat to the endangered chinook.

The Seattle City Council will hold a public hearing on Bonneville's proposed logging in the Cedar River watershed at 7 p.m. Tues., March 26 at the Mountaineers' Club, 300 Third W.

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