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Wednesday, April 24, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wetlands Vanishing

Despite wide concern, new laws and millions of dollars in cleanup, the stiffest challenges may lie ahead in keeping Puget Sound healthy. Fourth of a five-part series.

Vickie Tsoodle still remembers the determined do-goodism of her grandmother, a member of the Indian Shaker church. She venerates the spiritual ways of her ancestors in the Tulalip tribe. And Tsoodle can remember something else - when the water in the tributaries of the Snohomish River was clear enough to cleanse body and soul.

Those waters were a fisherman's paradise, the spawning grounds for generations of salmon and the principal food source for generations of Tulalips. Today Tsoodle has a 22-year-old daughter who is venturing away from modern comforts to learn to fish. "You got to enjoy the salt, your hands getting sore, fishing in the snow and the cold," says Tsoodle.

While the elemental enjoyment may be the same, the catch is not.

"The fishing was better then," Tsoodle recalls. "You could get 300 in one day. Today, if you catch 10, you're high boat," or highliner, a champion fisherman.

Tsoodle believes she knows the reason. It lies, among other places, in a mud-colored tributary of the Snohomish with the highest fecal coliform count in the county. Fecal coliform bacteria is a sign of human animal waste - in this case, manure from dairy cows. From this and other streams the Tulalips have pulled sluggish small salmon and fish with growths on their gills.

The streams have been channeled into ditches, where the filaments that hang from river plants are not some exotic new plant species but traces of toilet paper from failing septic tanks. They are watercourses rerouted around farms, fed by land once occupied by wetlands, now filled for housing developments.

Cleaning up Puget Sound and its tributaries is one thing, and there has been some improvement in nearly a decade since the first widespread public alarm about dying whales, cancerous bottom fish and unregulated toxins.

Preserving the land that buffers the Sound is something else, and there the record has been poor. Most scientists agree that the wetlands that line Puget Sound store and clean water and shelter fish and wildlife.

But wetlands continue to vanish statewide at the rate of 900 to 2,000 acres a year, according to the state Department of Ecology. The fight to save them has run up against a sacrosanct American right - doing with one's property as one sees fit.

Tsoodle, a fisheries technician for the tribe, talks to a lot of property owners as she walks the ditches.

"They say, `We have property rights.' They say, `You don't own our ditches,' " Tsoodle says. One farmer kept her talking for two hours, asking why should he give up two acres of precious grazing land to serve as a stream buffer.

Tsoodle noted that 100 years ago the land had belonged, if it belonged to anyone, to her tribe. "We're not talking about giving it all back," she said. "Why don't you just take care of what you have? It's not like they're not cooperating," she says. "But they're all trying to get ahead. It's a material world."

The material world is impinging on the old world, now more than ever in Snohomish County and other lowland areas around Puget Sound. Snohomish County population grew by almost 40 percent in the 1980s, the fastest-growing county in the state. The impact on fish has been predictable.

Historically, the tribe could expect between 10,000 and 15,000 chinook salmon to return, with 5,000 left alone for escapement, returning to spawn in the streams. The escapement goal was last made in 1980, and today the run has dwindled to 5,000 to 6,000 total fish.

The tribe traces much of the decline to the destruction of wetlands, the wet, boggy places where juvenile fish hide and feed before they make their way to the sea. Three-quarters of the wetlands in the Snohomish River delta have disappeared - diked, drained or developed.

Wetlands have indisputable value to the health of Puget Sound and the bowl of land that feeds it. They are vital to salmon and other animals, and those animals that depend on wetlands are suffering. A Washington Department of Wildlife survey shows that 14 Puget Sound species on the list of endangered, threatened or sensitive animals, from the Olympic mudminnow to the common loon, depend on wetlands for primary feeding or resting.

Wetlands help clean the water that flows downhill toward the Sound.

"Wetlands are the filtering system that ensures survival and health," says Terry Williams, director of Tulalip fisheries. "We've taken away 90 percent of what is there. Think of them as kidneys - what if I had only 10 percent of my kidneys that were functioning?"

Wetlands also harbor a diversity of plant life and, more to the point for the Sound's human inhabitants, wetlands and forests control floods. King County studies have found that the last winter's massive flooding was caused by stream flows 10 times greater than those that occurred when the land was undeveloped.

In the Soos Creek basin in southwest King County, planners estimated that if development continued unfettered - 800 wetland acres lost over four years - sediment choking of salmon streams would triple.

The figures persuaded the King County Council to drastically limit development in the Soos Creek basin.

Such decisions have been more exception than rule, however.

Last fall, Snohomish County voters rejected by three to one a wetlands-protection ordinance, as voters statewide crushed Initiative 547, the growth-management measure.

To many, that raised a question: Are Washington residents willing to support environmental protection only up to the boundary of their back yards and the size of their pocketbooks?

For four years in a row, wetlands-protection bills have been blocked or defeated in the state Legislature, and wetlands measures have been removed from this year's growth-management legislation. Last year, the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority tried to adopt minimum standards for local governments to follow in controlling wetland development in the 12 counties where it has jurisdiction. That move was challenged by Sen. Cliff Bailey, D-Snohomish County. At his request, the attorney general looked into the matter and decided the authority didn't have the legal clout.

Efforts to protect wetlands have provoked an increasing backlash against all restrictions on property. Last year's growth-management bill was weakened in the state Senate, a bastion of property-rights sentiment. This year, an amendment to a new growth-law bill that would have required property owners to be paid for environmental or zoning restrictions was introduced in the more liberal House. It fell only one vote short of passing.

The wetlands issue is problematic for two reasons. Though made mostly of water, wetlands are legally on the land. And much of the land in Western Washington is, well, wet.

It follows that many developers and businesses feel that locking up wetlands means locking up developable land. A case in point: the ARCO refinery in Ferndale. Last year, Arco's Abe Johnson wrote the water-quality authority that in Western Washington, "vast quantities of land are low-grade wetlands. . . . virtually all of the land zoned as Heavy Impact Industrial in Whatcom County is tentatively identified as a wetland."

Part of the problem is that nobody can agree on what a wetland is. Everybody can visualize a scenic pond full of red-winged blackbirds and cattails as a wetland, but a puddly pasture is another matter.

"Is a depression in my back yard or your back yard that doesn't drain a wetland?" asks Ed Hansen, a Snohomish County attorney who opposed the original wetlands ordinance and who now is trying to help redraft county wetlands policy. "If you're talking a salmon stream, that would be a high priority. But when the wetland is isolated and has a limited functional value, there should be some flexibility."

Such "isolated wetlands," not connected to any body of water, create the most controversy, because they take up so much of the remaining developable land in the state, though they, too, may have value as flood control and wildlife habitat.

Bill Leonard, a wetlands ecologist with the Ecology Department, says critters may see that puddle with an entirely different eye. Leonard found one isolated wetland, not more than 500 square feet in size, that had harbored red-legged frogs, Pacific tree frogs and long-toed salamanders for at least five years.

"It's in the middle of a pasture not far from a stream," he said. "In August, most people wouldn't know there's a wetland there." Recent federal efforts to strip seasonal wetlands of protection "may result in tens of thousands of acres of valuable wetlands being excluded" from protection in Washington state, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers analysis.

Despite the backlash, even pro-development interests agree that the long-term solution to wetlands protection is growth management, with definite lines drawn for growth and no-growth areas.

"I think they have to say - this is where the growth is going to be and in between, there's not going to be any growth," says Doug Peterson, director of the Associated General Contractors of King County. "We're only concerned that development be allowed, not where it is allowed."

"The business community has a great concern for the quality of life," says Vic Erickson, director of the Seattle-King County Economic Development Council. "If we continue to do nothing, that's a bad thing for the economy and the environment."

The development community is far from united in its views. Peterson says his AGC membership constructs multistoried buildings in urban areas, and that builders of single-family homes have far more at stake when it comes to who gets what land. Because of its divisiveness, wetlands protection was removed from this year's growth-management bill in the Legislature, with decisions left to local governments.

That bodes ill for any broad, consistent wetlands protection and by extension, for Puget Sound, says Alyn Duxbury, a University of Washington oceanography professor.

Currently only five of 12 counties fronting Puget Sound and adjacent waters have some sort of wetlands protection. Meanwhile, Washington, a state with the smallest land base of any Western state, sustains the second-highest population, and the wildlife department estimates that wildlife habitat is disappearing at the rate of 30,000 acres a year, the size of the city of Spokane. The wildlife department estimates that a million and a half animals of all stripes have disappeared from the state since 1975.

Sometime very soon, Duxbury says, people will have to decide what they want Puget Sound for. Will it be primarily for people - a mountains-and-water picture frame suitable for sunsets? Or will we preserve the essential ecosystem for the plants and birds and fish and other creatures that have called the Sound home?

To do that, people would have to learn to restrain their desires to live and work wherever they choose. "As you increase the abuse, you've got to increase the correction," says Duxbury. ------------------------------------------------------------ Losses of wetlands from major river deltas

Lummi Delta 90% lost. Samish Delta 96% lost. Skagit Delta 56% lost. Stillaguamish Delta 64% lost. Snohomish Delta 74% lost. Duwamish Delta 99% lost. Skokomish Delta 33% lost. Puyallup Delta 100% lost. Nisqually Delta 28% lost.

SOURCE: PSWQA

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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