the film
Commentaries and editorials

Seattle Gets Its Green Bubble
Popped, Again

by Danny Westneat
Seattle Times, March 8, 2023

Lower Granite Dam in SE Washington state impounds the Lower Snake forty miles up beyond the Idaho border. It's not often that your most inflated image of yourself gets punctured with a single withering phrase.

Such was Seattle's fate in a court ruling this week. The city's eco-visions as the greenest in America were summed up by a panel of judges to be ... well ... I believe the nonlegal term for it is "total B.S."

"The City's claims appear to be 'mere puffery,' " the Washington state Court of Appeals ruled Monday, referring to Seattle's branding of itself as having the "Nation's Greenest Utility."

"Puffery" is judicial shade for undue boasting. But more than that, it means the boasts are such empty superlatives that few would take them literally. Example: "I am a very stable genius." Obviously false, but also so unverifiable and hyperbolic as to not be a provable lie, either.

But forget about Donald Trump, a master of this particular slippery slope. All of this came up with respect to the city of Seattle and its operation of dams on the Skagit River. The tiny Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, in Darrington, sued nearly two years ago, arguing that Seattle City Light has been engaged in decades of "greenwashing" of the dams -- pretending, with extravagant rhetoric, that they are far more eco-friendly than they really are.

"It's a form of hypocrisy," says Jack Fiander, the lawyer in the case for the Sauk-Suiattle. "There's a lot of 'look over there at that problem, but don't look at us.' "

At issue is that none of the city's three Skagit River dams have ever included any fish passage for salmon, or a hatchery. The dams block 37% of the river, all the way up into British Columbia. At the same time, the tribe argues, Seattle leaders have continually boasted how green they are while calling for dams to be breached for salmon in other places, such as along the Snake River in Eastern Washington.

"It's hard to take, but it also shifts the blame of what's happening to the salmon away from them and onto the tribe," Fiander said.

Remarkably, in this case, Skagit County also weighed in to bash Seattle.

The city's green rhetoric "has served to undermine sound public environmental policy in the Skagit, in part by bending the collective consciousness [and] pushing regulators and City leadership toward ideas, beliefs, and ensuing courses of action that fail to align with reality," Skagit County told the court.

Dang, pretty harsh. Also not the first time we in Seattle, or in this state, have struggled to live up to our green ideals.

The court sided with the tribe, at least for part of the case, by ruling it can head back to a lower court and proceed to trial (though either side could still ask the state Supreme Court to weigh in as well).

It isn't clear which side would win a trial on the merits. But the tribe has already won a symbolic victory.

For one, Seattle City Light has stopped puffing itself up as the greenest utility.

For two, the dams are up for re-licensing and Seattle has admitted, after a century, that it probably ought to allow fish to go past the concrete (though it still also insists that salmon never went up there, a point disputed by various state and federal fish agencies).

It's been 22 years since the Seattle City Council voted unanimously for a resolution to breach the Snake River dams in Eastern Washington. Yet all this time we've had our own dam problem right here.

Dams are mixed bags. They make clean carbon-free power but kill fish and degrade river systems. There's no way to slice them as all green or all dirty. About all you can do is the one thing Seattle hasn't -- help fish get around the obstruction. How could we not be bothered to try that one thing all these years, even as salmon runs on that river were put on the endangered species list?

Aren't salmon core to our Northwestern identity? I've certainly heard a speech or a hundred to that effect.

The simplest way now would be to trap the salmon below the dams and then truck them around. It can be trickier when the juvenile fry pass back through the dams heading downstream. But for both, there's no reason Seattle couldn't have done it decades ago.

The court's popping of another of our city's green bubbles is awkward, but an opportunity. Look inward before projecting outward, for one. Less gauzy green talk, more reality.

"It doesn't decide the case, or how to save the salmon," Fiander said. "But it means Seattle has to wear the cone of shame."

Now that's an unusual ruling. But we're also talking about decades of failing to see what's right under our noses. So I wonder if we'll even notice what's now on top of our heads.

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics.
Seattle Gets Its Green Bubble Popped, Again
Seattle Times, March 8, 2023

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation