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Sunday, April 16, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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OUR NORTHWEST

Stream Salvation

DENISE ANDREWS DOESN'T have the easiest job in the world. She's trying to correct 150 years of mistakes by half a million people.

With the rest of us having conquered nature, Andrews is trying to figure out if Seattle can still coexist with it.

And if we make it possible, will the result be artificial or natural?

A century and a half ago, Safeco Field was a tidal mudflat and the Duwamish industrial area was a marsh thronged with birds. Lake Union was a distant refuge ringed with old-growth forest. Singing their way down the city's shady ravines were clear, salmon-filled creeks that we eventually named Ravenna, Pipers, Thornton, Longfellow, Schmitz, Fauntleroy, Puget, Mapes and Taylor, to list just the major ones.

The ravines were logged, the city grew, and the creeks were piped, paved and plugged with small dams. They became open storm sewers, garbage-dumping grounds and impediments to progress. Finally, they were mostly forgotten.

Now Seattle residents are paying a special drainage tax - the cost amounts to the price of a movie ticket and a jumbo popcorn per person per year, or $15 million over three years - to resuscitate their streams. One measure of success will be the reestablishment of salmon.

"If these fish were here they should be here," said Andrews, a onetime construction worker turned creek-project bureaucrat, who oversees on-the-ground work at four of the city's targeted creeks for Seattle Public Utilities. "And even if we never get salmon we'll get migratory birds in the wetland ponds and wildlife in the new forests. It actually starts with bugs in the creek."

Yet even she has doubts about just how much can still be done.

The problem is not salmon. Their willingness to come back, given half a chance, is astonishing. When a short fish ladder gave access to a few hundred yards of Fauntleroy Creek opposite the West Seattle ferry dock, more than 200 fish gratefully spawned. About 60 coho salmon each year determinedly swim 3,300 feet through a pipe under the Bethlehem Steel mill near the West Seattle bridge to get to badly wounded Longfellow Creek. Salmon are back in North Seattle's Pipers and Thornton creeks after an absence of three generations.

The problem is us. About half of Seattle is already roofs or pavement and the city appears heading toward a San Francisco-type density that someday will cover even more soil. When it rains, there is no forest floor to act as a filter. Water gushes into the creeks laden with sediment, oil, fertilizers, pesticides, paint residue, litter and pet feces. Spawning beds are smothered. Juvenile fish are flushed away. The food web is poisoned.

A city experiment to counter this trend is the recent conversion of a 650-foot-long street block at Second Avenue Northwest at North 117th Street. The street was narrowed, rain-catching swales were added and drainage was improved. Problem: a cost of about $750,000 for a single block.

Is creek restoration, then, inspiring politics or biological futility? This is not just a Seattle problem but a Northwest problem, dividing well-meaning people over everything from "daylighting" Ravenna and Thornton creeks where they now flow under the University Village and Northgate malls to yanking out four Snake River dams in Southeast Washington.

"They're not going to take Chinook salmon off the endangered-species list by restoring Pipers Creek," said Derek Booth, a civil-engineering professor at the University of Washington who sits on an advisory boardand whocautions creek restorers against promising too much.

"Yet I think there's tremendous opportunities to engage people who live here and reconnect them with the natural world. If you tell people in Seattle you're going to ship all their money to save salmon to the Skagit River or the Cascades, they're not going to be very excited about that."

But where to draw the line? The city has so far said no to citizen proposals to unearth a branch of Thornton Creek from under the parking lot south of Northgate when that property is redeveloped. No to unearthing Ravenna Creek through University Village. Both cost too much for too little benefit, officials say.

Yet Seattle Public Utilities intends to temporarily rip up Rainier Avenue in Southeast Seattle and put in a fish-friendly culvert so salmon can get into relatively healthy Taylor Creek, a hidden jewel that may be the city's best-kept secret.½

½ RESTORATION is a judgment call with no right answers.

Katherine Lynch, the city's urban creek-biologist, estimates that of Seattle's 35 miles of major creek, salmon have access to about 10 miles. Removing obstacles would double their habitat to 21 miles. "It's safe to say we could have hundreds of fish" spawning each year if we do so, she says.

A commercial fishery? No.

A genetic refuge, an outdoor laboratory, a tourist attraction, a place to fuse with the rhythms of nature? Yes.

That Seattle cares about creeks at all is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began largely in the 1970s when citizen activists began to drag city officials, kicking and screaming, to see potential in the city's streams.

"When we started it was like pulling teeth," recalled Cheryl Klinker, president of the citizen's Thornton Creek Alliance. "Habitat conservation was not even in their scope. Got a flooding problem? Put it in a pipe. They've come a long way."

In a 1978 brainstorming session, city leaders dreamed of sometime bringing salmon into Westlake Center, recalled Diana Gale, now director of Seattle Public Utilities. While the idea was deemed impractical, "That thought stuck in my head." And in the late 1980s, the city started a drainage utility to stop overtaxing sewer lines by starting to pond flood water as the forest had once done.

Then Gale became boss at the beginning of 1997, just when mudslides hit the city. "My first day on the job I was out looking at slides, looking at floods, looking at creeks."

Water wasn't going where it was supposed to. Creeks were flooding and hills were sliding because the natural ecosystem that retained heavy rains had been destroyed. At the same time, newly elected Mayor Paul Schell wanted to do a "legacy" project of tree-planting and creek restoration to mark the turn of the millennium. And Puget Sound salmon were headed for the endangered-species list.

Bingo. "The idea was to have fish come back to the four corners of the city," said Gale. "We're not going to make a dent in saving salmon, but we're going to make a big dent in the public's understanding of the life of salmon and the life of a creek."

Pipers, Thornton, Longfellow and Taylor have been targeted for most of the work, at a cost of about $3 million a year. That's pricey if you don't give a damn about rivulets you can almost hop across, but peanuts compared to baseball stadiums and mega-mansions.½

½ THE PROGRAM WOULDN'T begin to work if citizens weren't willing to do a lot of extra work for free. Salmon disappeared from Carkeek Park's Pipers Creek by 1926, but returned in 1987 after decades of quiet work by people like Nancy Malmgren, a founder of the volunteer Carkeek Watershed Project. Coho salmon showed up in 1998. Locals pried loose $2 million in government grants over the years and put in thousands of unpaid hours. Pipers is getting better, not worse.

Darrell Dobson has been working on restoring Taylor Creek since 1971 and now is project coordinator of Friends of Deadhorse Canyon, a delightful and hidden ravine few Seattleites even know exists. "We're trying to restore the canyon to what it would have been 200 years ago," he said. They've planted 3,000 conifer trees, 1,500 other plants, removed tons of garbage, weeded out blackberries and English ivy, and had city help in replacing two fish-blocking culverts and upgrading trails.

A deer was spotted two years ago and sightings of raccoons, opossum and birds are common. Dobson estimates it will take another 50 years for the conifers to begin replacing the maples that grew after logging and start making Taylor Creek look like it did to pioneers.

Salmon try to enter the creek from Lake Washington but are blocked near the creek mouth by an impassable culvert under Rainier Avenue and an apartment building. To get fish upstream, the city will have to re-route the creek through a playfield, put a new culvert under the highway, and enlist the help of neighbors near the lake shore in making the channel more natural.

If salmon can get in, their decomposing bodies should start feeding a complex food web of critters big and small.

The mouth of Longfellow Creek is hidden near a cargo crane on the Duwamish Waterway and the creek doesn't surface until Southwest Yancy Street, a good 10 blocks away. There, the city has purchased land under an Open Space program to create wetlands and creek pools. One amusing obstacle has been an ambitious beaver with its own agenda; he's been busily gnawing down bordering cottonwoods.

Next on the agenda for Longfellow is construction of a fish ladder at the north end of West Seattle Golf Course to get spawning salmon up along the fairways. Farther upstream the city is planning new storm-detention ponds, recreation areas and possibly an outdoor-education center.

Thornton Creek in Northeast Seattle empties into Lake Washington at Mathews Beach Park and drains the city's biggest watershed, totaling 11 square miles. As such it is one of the most promising and most contentious of creeks in the city. New plantings near Mathews Beach, a new culvert under Lake City Way, new wetlands at Meadowbrook Playfield and North Seattle Community College, and new detention ponds at Jackson Park Golf Course are all helping to revive an important and ravaged stream system. Beaver and river otters have come back.

"Some areas are like walking into a rural area in the middle of Seattle," said creek volunteer Klinker.

But she has also seen flood runoff blast away the juvenile salmon school kids have put into the creek, seen soapsuds 2 feet high on the north fork, and knows fecal counts remain high everywhere. Despite everyone's best efforts and hopes, the number of spawning coho salmon dropped from 30 a couple years ago to 10 last year.

Particularly disheartening has been the resistance of the city and an Indiana developer to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a branch of the creek out of a pipe when Northgate Mall is redeveloped. Neighbors think such daylighting would be cheap and more than pay for itself in elevating the value of the property. The city thinks it would be costly and do little for the overall health of the creek. WHICH GETS BACK to the basic question of whether Seattle creeks can be saved at all.

As alluring as it sounds to have a working Northwest ecosystem in the heart of the Northwest's biggest city, "We have no examples where this has successfully occurred," warned Booth. Creek flows are so variable and polluted runoff so inescapable that "self-sustaining runs of salmon are unlikely to re-establish themselves." Even bugs at the base of the food chain struggle to survive. Are we throwing millions of dollars into pursuit of a past that's gone with the wind?

The answer comes down to what you think creeks are for, salmon are for and humans are for. It's about whether Seattle wants to be New York Alki (the pioneer slogan meaning "New York, by and by") or Ecotopia.

Any fish that swim into Seattle are a measuring stick of environmental health, not a commercial resource. Clean creeks don't build airplanes, write software or fill potholes. A healthy ribbon of riparian habitat is about as useful to Seattle as a symphony, home run or community festival - which is to say, not useful at all, unless you think life is about more than material accumulation and maximizing development.

If there is something at all sacred about life, however, then what hundreds of volunteers and the city are haltingly trying to do is really an act of reverence and worship, even of atonement. Creek restoration pays homage to not just what was once here but the natural web that still sustains us - even if we do push it over the horizon sometimes. It turns the environment from an abstract ideal to a stomping ground city people can see every day.

Seattle's creeks are potential refuges not just for salmon but for creatures that range from deer and eagles to algae and aquatic insects. They are places of meditation and retreat. They are outdoor classrooms. They are filters for runoff. They are corridors for both hikers and wildlife. They are where we teach our kids to pick a future.

Malmgren knows better than anyone how tough saving a creek is: She's been working on Pipers since encountering it as a Girl Scout leader in 1965. Yet she says saving creeks, and coming back into some kind of balance with the natural world, is not an option but a necessity. To her, Pipers Creek is a microcosm of the planet.

"This is the way we, as a species, are going to survive," she said.½

William Dietrich, author and former Seattle Times reporter, writes Our Northwest for Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for the magazine. Mark Nowlin and Paul Schmid are Times news artists.

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Creek Week

WANT TO HELP SAVE Seattle's creeks? Minimize fertilizer and garden chemicals, pick up pet waste, plant more trees and fix that leaking oil pan?

To volunteer for creek restoration, call Urban Creek Stewards at 206-684-7655.

And take part in Urban Creek Week. It started yesterday with a celebration at Longfellow Creek. Information is available from Robin Friedman at 206-386-1815. Other events:

Monday: A hike of Pipers Creek in Carkeek Park starts at 10 a.m. A party to celebrate the new creek-friendly street at Second Avenue Northwest and Northwest 117th Street runs from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Wednesday: A celebration of Taylor Creek in Lakeridge Park, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Saturday: A daylong volunteer work party at Thornton Creek, Northeast 98th Street and Lake City Way, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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Survivors: Seattle's creeks

Despite pollution, development and neglect, some of Seattle's original wild creeks survive - often hidden beneath our miles of pavement. A special drainage tax in Seattle now pays for a program to protect them, with much work done by citizen volunteers.

1. Fauntleroy Creek

Flows from Fauntleroy Park, at Southwest Barton Street and 38th Avenue Southwest, to a new fish ladder for salmon at its outlet near the Fauntleroy ferry terminal.

2. Schmitz Creek

Flows to the sound from Schmitz Park, 5551 S.W. Admiral Way.

3. Longfellow Creek

Flows north from Roxhill Park for several miles along the Delridge Way valley. Turns east to reach the Duwamish Waterway via a pipe beneath the Bethlehem Steel plant.

4. Thornton Creek

Large branches begin near North Seattle Community College and west of Jackson Park Golf Course, then join and reach Lake Washington at Mathews Beach Park, Northeast 93rd Street and Sand Point Way Northeast. Beaver, river otters and great blue herons have been observed.

5. Meadowbrook Pond

Across 35th Avenue Northeast from Nathan Hale High School; part of efforts to restore drainage detention ponds.

6. Puget Creek

Flows into the Duwamish from Puget Park, Southwest Dawson Street and 19th Avenue Southwest.

7. Ravenna Creek

Flows through Ravenna Park and through a pipe under University Village on its way to Union Bay.

8. Mapes Creek

Flows from a ridge to Lake Washington; accessible at Kubota Gardens, 9600 Renton Ave. S.

9. Pipers Creek

Flows from the North Greenwood area to Puget Sound at Carkeek Park. The creek can be seen at North 90th Street between Greenwood and Palatine avenues.

10. Taylor Creek

Flows from Lakeridge Park in Deadhorse Canyon to Lake Washington. To reach the park, drive south on Rainier Avenue South, turn right at 68th Avenue South.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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