Seattlites look to save energy - and fish, too

The Pacific Northwest faces its own energy crisis, as it balances power needs with protecting species.

It was one of those glorious Seattle days. Clear, crisp, sun glinting off Mt. Rainier, Puget Sound sparkling. The kind of midwinter day that makes Jay Whaley anxious.

Mr. Whaley works for Seattle City Light, the public utility here, and his job is to look months ahead and figure out how this city will have enough electricity to power the computer servers and espresso machines that fuel its economy and lifestyle. These days things are not looking good.

Up in the Cascade Mountains, where the city owns three hydropower dams, the snowpack is unusually thin. That's likely to mean not enough water to generate electricity, while making it harder to comply with environmental laws. All of which makes Whaley wish for a big storm.

While Californians continue to wrestle with electricity shortfalls, parts of the Pacific Northwest are facing a complex energy crisis of their own. Cities like Seattle get much of their power from hydropower, which is clean and renewable but also harms endangered species like chinook salmon. While most dramas involving the federal Endangered Species Act impact rural Westerners, Seattle is the one major metropolitan area in the country that includes prime habitat for federally-protected species. This puts Seattlites in the midst of a tricky balancing act between saving fish and powering their toasters and laptops.

Ecologists like to say that everything is connected, and it certainly seems true here. The energy crunch is connected to water flows, which are connected to salmon, which is connected to industrial pollution in the estuaries, which is connected to Heidi Wills unplugging her microwave and dishwasher.

Ms. Wills is a member of the Seattle City Council and the point person for energy and environmental policy. "I don't think anyone would be willing to contribute to the decline of a species," says Wills, who won't let anyone leave her office without an energy-saving fluorescent light bulb.

The city is responding to this major energy-environment challenge in several ways.

About three hours northeast of here, the city operates three hydropower dams along the Skagit River. The Skagit is prime habitat for endangered salmon and critters that depend on fish - like bears and bald eagles.

Long before the current energy crisis and the recent listing of the chinook under the federal Endangered Species Act, city employees were carefully monitoring water flows and tending spawning grounds.

"We do try to take care of this unique, beautiful place up here," says Brad Howell, a powerhouse supervisor. That includes everything from building rearing ponds for salmon to using greaseless nonpolluting bushings on turbines. "It all adds up, and in the end hopefully the fish are the winners," Mr. Howell says, looking up at the wall of concrete where his father worked before him.

The city is also working with public and private landholders downstream to protect habitat. "If all those pieces of the habitat aren't healthy it doesn't matter what we do for the fish," says David Pflug, a fisheries biologist with Seattle City Light.

As a result of these efforts, the chinook population just below the city's dams is among the healthiest in the Puget Sound area. But the picture for salmon throughout the region is less rosy, and here the city may have a tougher job.

Flowing through Seattle's largest industrial area is the Duwamish River, where young chinook transition from fresh to saltwater before heading out to sea. A hike along the riverbank reveals that more than a century of development has left its mark.

Dredging and channeling have destroyed 98 percent of the original estuaries. Slaughterhouses, fruit-packing plants, aircraft manufacturing, cement factories, and other industries have caused pollution. As a result, the area has been named a federal Superfund site, meaning it is contaminated with hazardous substances.

"Salmon have to contend with a very altered environment," says Lynn Best, manager of environmental planning for the city. Over the years, annual runs of Puget Sound chinook have dwindled from 650,000 to about 50,000.

But along the Duwamish (named for the native people who originally lived here), there also is evidence of habitat restoration. Swales have been built alongside manufacturing plants. Riverbank areas too steep for young fish - making them vulnerable to predators - have been shallowed out. "Goose excluders" of wire and string keep Canada geese out of the streamside vegetation that sustains juvenile salmon as they find their way out to sea.

"The water quality is infinitely better than in the 1970s, which was better than the 1940s," says Judith Noble, who oversees environmental restoration efforts for the city. This will have to continue under state and US laws requiring pollution cleanup and habitat protection. Part of the solution will involve tax abatements for environmental easements, as well as persuading businesses along the river to cooperate.

The most obvious public effort to save energy and fish these days is Seattle's conservation program. For more than 20 years, the city has been at the forefront of energy conservation, mainly through financial incentives to install more-efficient lighting, heating, and plumbing systems. City spending on such programs is being doubled, and a major publicity campaign is urging people to take shorter showers, wash clothes in cold water, lower the thermostat, and turn off computer monitors when they're not in use.

The trick now is to keep it up.

"The shorter showers probably won't be sustainable," concedes Robert Royer, communications director of Seattle City Light. But the heightened effort launched last month seems to be working. The city already is halfway towards its goal of reducing electricity consumption by 10 percent.

The issues here are complex and not fully understood. Toxic-waste cleanup under Superfund could work against habitat restoration efforts. Yet city officials have no choice under the law but to do everything they can to balance energy needs with environmental protection. Over the years, more than 40 salmon and steelhead populations already have gone extinct in Washington State.

"It took us 150 years to get into this problem, and it's going to take us a long time to get out of it," says Martin Baker, who leads Seattle's endangered species team. "We don't want to make a mistake here, because it could be very costly and it could be wrong."

Next: the Bonneville Power Administration's shaky future.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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