Monday, August 20, 2007

Wetlands and the Mayor of Seattle

Wetlands work widens rift between mayor, environmentalists
Nickels' decision to move forward at odds with their vision


Environmentalists and a city councilman's aide are expressing outrage that Mayor Greg Nickels went ahead this week with a controversial eco-repair project at a construction site where the city was caught illegally paving wetlands.

Residents first noticed an earthmover and other signs of imminent work at the site near White Center on Tuesday -- as City Councilman Richard Conlin, who had interceded on behalf of environmentalists, was jetting to Peru on vacation.

Environmentalists and Conlin's aide said the mayor had promised not to move forward until their differences were resolved. The aide questioned whether Nickels' actions were "honorable."

"This is really stinky, man," said James Rasmussen, a member of the Duwamish tribal council and president of the Green-Duwamish Watershed Alliance. "I don't even know if the mayor's listening or not."

Nickels' spokeswoman, Marianne Bichsel, said he did not feel compelled to notify Conlin or environmentalists because he declared in a July 13 letter that construction would proceed.

"It's not that all of a sudden, work started happening," Bichsel said. "The mayor has been very clear about this. We are moving forward."

The disagreement -- centering on whether to route spring water or parking lot runoff into Hamm Creek -- has opened an increasingly bitter rift between Nickels and environmentalists, despite Seattle's green image and plaudits for the mayor's work to slow global warming.

In the crossfire is the Seattle Fire Department. The paving was done for a new firefighter training facility. But because the wetlands were illegally destroyed, the city got in trouble with federal regulators. Until the damage is repaired or made up for, the city isn't allowed to let firefighters spray water during training exercises.

Conlin was unavailable for comment Friday in earthquake-wracked Peru. But Conlin aide Sara Nelson said: "Our office believes that at the minimum, the Mayor's Office owed us the courtesy of a response to our latest letter. And the honorable thing would have been to inform us that construction was beginning."

Conlin followed up on Nickels' July 13 letter by meeting with the mayor. Eleven days later, the councilman sent the mayor a letter, anticipating additional talks.

By then, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition -- the environmental group spearheading the fight, with Conlin's aid -- had dropped three of the most complicated and expensive parts of its five-part proposal for a fix.

The wetlands in question, at an old gravel-mining site, formed a big section of the headwaters of Hamm Creek, which was lovingly restored by Vietnam veteran John Beal and scores of volunteers.

After construction started on the training facility in 2004 and Beal spotted the illegal wetlands paving, it took him months to get the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps and the city worked out a plan to restore some wetlands on the site, high on the east bank of West Seattle, as well as wetlands far below on the Duwamish River. That was approved unanimously by the City Council and then the Corps.

But there was a problem. No one asked Beal and his allies what they thought -- even though Conlin thought he had secured such a promise from Brenda Bauer, a Nickels appointee in charge of the Fleets and Facilities Department.

Beal died last year.

At this point, the environmentalists are asking for:

# Enhancement of a wetland just outside the training facility.

# Redesigning of a drainage feature so that water seeping out of a nearby hillside is routed to feed a fork of Hamm Creek instead of being fed into a pipe.

"What we came up with is really creative, really easy, really cheap," said BJ Cummings, coordinator of the cleanup coalition.

The city already has budgeted $4 million to repair or make up for the wetlands damage. The whole project cost is $33.6 million, according to a city Web site. Bauer pointed to estimates by city consultants pegging costs for the items the environmentalists want at $600,000 to $1.1 million.

Environmentalists hotly dispute those estimates, citing national wetlands-restoration costs and experts' opinions. They were researching costs further when they found out that the work was under way. . They portray Bauer as unyielding. Bauer said she is merely using common sense.

"This is a settlement agreement with the federal government, and it's fairly onerous to amend it," Bauer said. "Why would we revisit this when we've gone through extensive negotiations, and we're putting several million dollars on the table to do environmental enhancements?"

The city wants to stick with its design, which uses water collected from the pavement at the training center to feed the creek. It is a waterway that passes through Marra Farm, a site where a taxpayer-funded agency called the King Conservation District brought Hamm Creek to the surface to improve its ecological value.

The district has tried to help persuade the Nickels administration to listen to the environmentalists.

"We're not an advocate for either side," said Pete Landry, an engineer and geologist on the conservation district staff.

"We're just trying to look at what makes sense, and what's not extraordinarily expensive."

His assessment of the work requested by environmentalists: "It's not that difficult."

Under the current plan, conservation district officials fear that a steady, cool, clean source of water flowing off the nearby hill will be wasted when it could feed Hamm Creek

"There's a lot of water that is not flowing to the lynchpin of the watershed," Landry said. "Rather than routing water away from it, we should be routing water to it."

The city plans to use water collected from the training facility's parking lots to feed the creek, after cleansing it.

But the conservation district fears that that water would run short, particularly in the late summer.

"I'm worried that ... they're going to dry up that creek," said Geoff Reed, district director.

Technically, though, the city is under no legal obligation to do anything more than what was required by the Corps.

Going ahead with the environmentalists' plan would mean another year's delay in getting water to the firefighting facility, Bauer said, in part because of the need to obtain new state and local permits that would expire in the meantime.

Work likely would begin next summer at the earliest, she said.
P-I Researcher Marsha Milroy contributed to this report. P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or Read his blog on the environment at

No comments: