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Sunday, May 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Seattle's creeks were once choked with salmon. Do we have the courage to bring them back?

Special to The Times

At certain times of the year, reasonably ordinary people around Puget Sound beat drums, chant prayers, sing songs and read poetry in public, wishing the salmon home.

WE revere the salmon as our Northwest cultural icon, celebrating its annual struggle back to spawning waters, to sacrifice its body for its offspring. With all that, the treasury of salmon returning to streams around Lake Washington last year turned as thin as the Seattle city budget. Creeks became trickles. At the mouths of those streams in which countable coho still make the effort, big fish died waiting for water that never came.

Blame it on the drought if you want to, but you're missing the point. Millions of salmon came up these creeks through countless Octobers and Novembers, following summer droughts worse than last year's.

The system is broken that supported an enormously successful Puget Sound fishery within the lifetimes of many of us, from the very same streams we cross every day. Thornton Creek, Piper's, McAleer, Lyon, Swamp, Kelsey — urban streams now virtually barren — were choked with salmon and trout into the middle of the 20th century. Not a myth. Real fish.

Now, with the renewing forces of nature at last overwhelmed, we hear brave sounds of some comfort to the interested citizen but of little use to the dying fish. We spend millions of dollars, pass laws and promise each other that we will bring the fish back.

We pretend.

Only with total effort can we reverse the process, and total effort seems politically out of the question. Total effort would mean retrofitting whole neighborhoods of houses where storm water rages unchecked into streams, rips out fish habitat, flushes tiny salmon into the lake or the Sound. That can be fixed, but it will cost more than anyone's willing to spend.

Total effort would mean at last outlawing the use of poison lawn chemicals where they run into storm sewers and from there to the creeks.

Seattle and King County would have to get serious about reclaiming Seattle sewage for use in operating the locks at Lake Union, so that the lake doesn't drop disastrously during dry years. (The water used to operate the locks is just about the same amount Seattle consumes.)

Total effort — and here's where it gets politically messy — would mean cities and counties have to enforce regulations known as "critical areas ordinances (CAOs)." These are laws designed to keep bulldozers and backhoes away from wetlands, streams and steep slopes. The state Growth Management Act requires local governments to adopt these protections, and most of them have complied. That is to say the ordinances are in place. But too many local planning directors and city administrators view the CAOs as a nuisance to be avoided or undone.

A famously shrewd California politician, Jesse Unruh, used to tell me no law was ever passed that could not be repealed by its enforcers. I don't recall that Jesse gave much of a damn about any fish in any creek, but he sure knew politics. You can see his principle at work in urban streams and watersheds all around us. Handsome protective ordinances are on public view, while city administrators busily seek ways to keep from enforcing them.

If there's a poster child for this dilemma, it's Thornton Creek, the largest watershed in both Seattle and Shoreline. There are still salmon from one end to the other, from the mouth at Matthews Beach to the upper reaches of the North Branch that flows from Ronald Bog Park at North 175th Street. There aren't many, but the law says they're worth saving.

Unhappily, the upper reaches of the creek are in the way of an assisted-living center the Aegis Corporation is building in the city of Shoreline. To fit Shoreline's critical-areas ordinances as they existed when the project began, the company would have had to alter its design rather drastically, and — Aegis officials have said — unprofitably.

A dispute has raged for two years or more over the distance Aegis must stay away from the stream, its wetland and its wetland buffers. During that period, Shoreline's planning department has tried to accommodate Aegis by:

• Rewriting city regulations designed to prevent development in the required natural buffers near salmon streams.

• Trying to issue a special permit exempting Aegis from the CAOs.

• Proposing to amend the legal definition of stream so that Thornton Creek would no longer exist as a stream that must be protected.

A tenacious group of Shoreline citizens dug up the money to take their city and the corporation to court. Judges ruled against the Aegis project, but the legal battle continues and so does the development. Aegis has completed about half the project and begun renting units, although more court challenges are expected. The company was required to tear down sections of the other half to conform with court rulings.

Downstream, the city of Seattle long ago allowed Thornton Creek to be buried in underground pipes along the south edge of Northgate shopping center. Seattle officials declared the underground portion no longer a creek — and thus not warranting protections that would have monkey-wrenched a major expansion and remodeling of Northgate.

Carried to its illogical end, this means if you've allowed parts of a stream to be so badly hammered that few or no salmon can make it, then it's OK to finish the wrecking job upstream, because the upstream is no longer fish habitat.

Urban-stream advocates are trying to stop that kind of action through a public initiative — I-80 — to be voted on in September. If it passes, anyone who takes on major development along a Seattle creek would have to uncover piped streams, re-create wetlands and restore native plant buffers, with the cost shared by developers and Seattle taxpayers.

Mayor Greg Nickels' administration strongly opposes I-80, claiming it's too expensive. The mayor's also pushing a new Northgate development plan that appears to effectively kill any possibility of opening Thornton Creek to the daylight and the salmon. It would commit the city to building a storm-water treatment pond above the buried stream, making it impossible ever to restore it as fish habitat.

The community would gain another 144,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. It would lose forever a once-rich salmon habitat.

No political leader would even think of saying openly, "Forget the silly fish." But their concern for the salmon seems to extend only to the point where the fish get in the way of private profits.

Thornton Creek may be the best-known and most-debated of the urban streams we have beaten up over the years, but it's only one of many. Seattle alone has 40 creeks that once were healthy salmon producers, now pathetic remnants of a treasure. There are dozens more around Lake Washington, where local governments seek to exempt developers from the protective ordinances that supposedly keep creeks and wetlands off limits.

Why so much energy spent to develop along streams and wetlands, when state law and public opinion clearly disapprove? Write your own guess and you're probably right. Here are mine:

Profits. Buy swamp and streamside for what it's worth with no building potential, then coerce local government into making it buildable, and you're rich. It isn't supposed to happen under Washington law, but it does.

Revenue. Consider the way cities and counties pay their planners and administrators. Most of the funds come from developer fees — for filing applications and obtaining permits. The more land the planning department approves for development, the more money flows to the planning department. King County's Department of Development and Environmental Services is funded that way. So are corresponding departments in suburban cities. The impetus to permit development seems pretty clear.

Whatever the motive, there's more at risk than salmon in the loss of urban streams and wild areas. These stream corridors are priceless islands of wildness in the urban landscape. As state laws direct growth into existing cities, we need more than ever to protect these little, green, wet urban gems. They serve as wild bird habitat and as outdoor classrooms where school children can study the basic nature of the planet and its delights. They restore the urban soul, and help to make city living tolerable.

If these were not precious public assets of such remarkable history, there would still be a democratic principle — Unruh's theory — to be tested. We have laws on the books in every locality around Puget Sound, written to protect our common wealth of water, fish, birds and other wildlife. Local government officials swear allegiance to these laws while at the same time working to find ways around them. It's just the worst kind of public pretense. We shouldn't allow it.

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