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Wednesday, August 1, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Stealth millionaire' taps fortune for water limits

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

A Seattle initiative to promote water conservation has received a surge of campaign cash from a Redmond mom who marched alongside her children as sea turtles during WTO, who believes in venerating nature and who describes herself as a "stealth millionaire."

Maryanne Snyder gave $50,000 toward Initiative 63, whose supporters turned in enough signatures last week to place the measure on the November ballot. It is the largest contribution in a city campaign since 1995, when cell-phone pioneers Bruce and Craig McCaw each gave $100,000 to help fund a failed measure to establish the Seattle Commons south of Lake Union.

I-63 would require the city to accelerate its conservation program. It would require higher water rates for homeowners and businesses that use large volumes of water, give low-income families up to $600 to install devices such as low-flow toilets, and reserve all the saved water for salmon streams as opposed to "suburban sprawl."

Related info


Seattle Ethics and Elections: campaign contributions

"Yes for Seattle": pro-63 group.

• Seattle Times editorial against I-63

Seattle Public Utilities: drought updates, water supply Q&A

Statement on I-63: The Seattle City Council's Citizen Analysis Panel

In Short Supply: A seattletimes.com special site

Under the initiative, conserved water would not be sold to other cities, including suburban utilities that are hooked into the 1.4 million-customer Seattle water system, unless they enact equally strict conservation rules.

Snyder, 40, is the sister-in-law of Knoll Lowney, co-chair of the "Yes for Seattle" campaign. Her gift is 10 times larger than any other individual campaign contribution in the city this year.

Snyder and her husband, Greg Lowney, say they are pagans who used to participate in small Wiccan rites venerating the four elements — fire, earth, air and, of course, water. Snyder said her interest in water goes back to fourth grade, when she wrote a report on the economic benefits of rain. And when she had her own children, what stands out about her pregnancies is water.

"Water is feminine. When your water breaks ... it's sea water. I was carrying a little fish, and women have a subjective experience that our environment has, of cleansing toxins through the kidneys, and restoring (water) to nourish life."

If the City Council doesn't pass the measure by mid-September, it will appear on the November ballot. The "Yes for Seattle" campaign turned in 26,000 petition signatures last week to put the measure in play.

It would give the Seattle Public Utilities director, Diana Gale, authority to decide who is a water hog and what the penalties are. Big institutions, such as hotels, schools and hospitals, could obtain exemptions by proving they have thorough conservation programs in place. That would create a layer of complexity — inspections, checklists, appeals — within the city's rate policies, Gale said.

Gale said if the initiative passes, whatever water is conserved in Seattle could not be sold to the suburbs, whose growth Seattle has promised to serve under long-term contracts.

Opponents include City Council President Margaret Pageler, who wrote in a self-funded newsletter that the initiative would foster a contentious "my water/your water mentality" between Seattle and suburban water users.

Seattle is the sole or main supplier to 26 water systems, and the city is signing new agreements that mandate 1 percent annual water-use reductions per capita each year.

Yesterday, the Yes for Seattle group filed a complaint with the city Ethics and Elections Commission against Pageler, who chose the members of a citizens panel that will study the initiative. The City Council is spending $10,000 for the panel facilitator. The complaint says Pageler should not have selected the panel because she's a known opponent of the initiative.

But Pageler said that the panel balances environmental, business and citizen interests and that she consulted the ethics commission as she was organizing it.

Last night, during the panel's first meeting, proponents of I-63 urged the group to disband.

The initiative campaign, energized by Snyder's gift, shows how impassioned some people have become over water use.

Despite legislation, salmon are endangered in Western Washington because of misuse of water, Snyder said. Global warming and other human changes to the planet are likely to outlast the species, she said.

Snyder marched with her husband and sons as sea turtles at a labor rally against the World Trade Organization in downtown Seattle in 1999, she said.

She said the $50,000 came from stock options at Microsoft, where her husband said he has designed products for computer users with disabilities.

Snyder says she and her husband are "stealth millionaires." They live in an older split-level house with white-painted aluminum columns. They grew up in Seattle but moved to Redmond so her husband could walk to work.

Knoll Lowney, the campaign cochairman, said the couple's donation was merely a catalyst that lends confidence to what will likely be a grass-roots, low-budget campaign. The Yes for Seattle group reports that 102 donors have given a total of $59,513 so far.

"It was the citizens of Seattle, the volunteers, who put this on the ballot," Knoll Lowney said.

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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