Water fuels Seattle’s growth. But in North Bend, activists say water could be running out
Seattle is surrounded by water. It’s one of the reasons why people move here.
But even in rainy, water-abundant Seattle, the region’s astronomical growth has given rise to new conflicts over water rights for people and salmon.
One of the most visible signs of that growth is a 212-unit apartment building to be built on the banks of the Snoqualmie River. And local environmental activists are demanding to know whether that building would put new strain on an already-overburdened waterway.
It was unusually hot on a recent spring day at Snoqualmie Falls, a popular waterfall attraction just 30 miles outside of Seattle, and the observation platform was crammed with tourists. Jean Buckner has been here dozens of times. It never stops impressing her.
She pointed downstream. “That’s where salmon spawn... on the sides, on the banks, where there’s gravel,” she said. “That’s their habitat.”
Buckner’s with a group called Friends of the Snoqualmie Trail and River. Water going over the falls supports the fish. But in the summer, the water level drops – to about half of what fish need.
“When the river dries in the summer, the banks dry, and that precious salmon habitat is lost,” she said.
It's no surprise that the river level has dropped with all the human activity around the falls.
When people concentrate around rivers, that tends to compromise stream flow and harm fish, Steven Martin of the Governor's Salmon Recovery Office said.
It just so happens that the nearby city of Snoqualmie has exploded with housing developments.
North Bend – just upstream and up the road – has seen very little of that kind of growth. North Bend famously set the scene for the TV show “Twin Peaks,” which staged a murder mystery in a sleepy, fictional logging town with a 1950s style diner. Much like the fictional Twin Peaks, North Bend has been stuck in the past.
The water shortage on the Snoqualmie River helps explain why.
In 1999, water regulators caught the city sucking more water out wells than allowed. To avoid fines, the city made a drastic decision: to halt all new construction.
The moratorium on building ended up lasting 10 years. And North Bend’s solution to their water woes created a new problem: The city began to run out of money.
“It was scary because we didn’t know when we were going to get our water rights - if we were - and be able to grow again,” recalled Hearing.
When Hearing became mayor in 2004, he wanted some of the growth that the city of Snoqualmie had. So Hearing set off on a quest to find new water rights for North Bend.
But even with the Snoqualmie river flowing through the center of town, the land had no more water to give. There were no more water rights to around.
So Hearing went to the next valley over. Seattle owns the water rights there. North Bend paid top dollar for some of Seattle’s water. Now North Bend takes water from a spring that would be going into the Cedar River basin and pumps it into the Snoqualmie River.
But Jean Buckner worries there may not be enough water left in the river to support the city’s planned growth.
She’s concerned that spring North Bend now relies on has dried up before and could dry up again. And the water the city would tap when it dries is, once again, wells in the Snoqualmie River basin. Taking more water out of those wells could lower the river and hurt fish.
Now Buckner’s group has focused its attention on fighting what looks like an easy target: a 212 unit apartment complex to be built right next to the river.
Buckner said she’s not against growth in North Bend. She just wants to see the city demonstrate that the river can withstand this new development.
The city of North Bend has plenty of water, the mayor has argued. He said he's told this to activists again and again, but they don't listen.
Furthermore, he said, those apartments planned near the river could house workers for his town's struggling commercial core. Currently, retail workers drive hours to reach North Bend jobs from South King County, where they can still find affordable housing that isn’t available in North Bend.
North Bend is mostly made up of single-family homes. And with breathtaking views of Mt. Si, those homes increasingly go to high earners who work in places like Seattle and Bellevue.
Buckner's group points to the fact that half of those apartments were allowed to proceed having only "conditional water certificates”: a permit that means developers can build their projects, but cannot move in people unless some source of water is secured.
North Bend has stopped taking such certificates, and the mayor now says they're "not worth the paper they're printed on." But those permits seemed to work for North Bend's economic development director David Miller. He told the Snoqualmie Valley Record this January that the developer could probably break ground this spring.
But Buckner is gearing up for a fight.
“The river’s not dead,” she said. “In fact, it’s very alive, and teeming. And so, we have a chance.”
Her group’s complaint against the city over the apartment building comes before a hearing examiner this summer.
A recent state Supreme Court hearing in favor of tribal fishing rights gives her hope. That decision said the state must quickly remove culverts that block fish passage. Buckner is watching to see if the tribes step in and demand protection of habitat beyond the culverts.
"The culverts are the front door. If there's no habitat beyond, what's the point?" she asked.
But the city may have found an out. It recently invested in new pumps at an old spring at the base of Mount Si—a spring so old that its water rights precede most others.
North Bend may finally be inching towards the growth it wants, but activists demand to know whether the river and the fish can survive it.