the film
Commentaries and editorials

Seattle City Council Should Mend this Breach

by Kate Riley, Times editorial columnist
Seattle Times, September 8, 2003

Even before I started writing this column, I could almost hear the groaning of the eight Seattle City Council members who voted for what arguably is the city's most notorious resolution.

Too bad.

Honorable council members, are you sick of hearing about the now 3-year-old resolution calling for the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams?

Then rescind it.

That resolution has done more to divide the state than the prehistoric geothermal stirrings that created the Cascade Mountains. Though only ceremonial, the measure continues to be the official position of the city of Seattle.

And people are holding grudges me included. Having lived 17 years near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, I know breaching those four dams would devastate the Columbia Basin economy, which relies on them for hydropower, irrigation and moving commodities by barge.

I'm all for saving salmon and spending money on it by protecting and restoring habitat, changing industrial practices, retooling dams, reforming hatcheries and irrigation practices and managing salmon predators. Breaching dams must be the absolute last resort not the first step, as the more radical of environmentalists contend. And that's precisely where the Seattle City Council has aligned itself, despite the fact the city's economy benefits handsomely from the natural resources-based economies of rural Washington.

The Snake River dams resolution was intended to be a symbolic gesture of the council's commitment to the environment.

But what it has turned out to be is a chip on Eastern Washington's shoulder, a symbol of Seattle's shortsighted, egocentric sense that nothing matters beyond the city limits. It's a remember-the-Alamo reason to be dismissive of the city's concerns. Why should the rest of the state care about finding solutions for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct or the Highway 520 bridge, if city slickers are so callous about the trials and livelihoods of their rural cousins?

About a dozen Eastern Washington cities and two counties responded to Seattle's insinuation into this issue with resolutions of their own. Some followed Moses Lake's lead and urged the breaching of Ballard Locks. A ridiculous notion? Yes. Did the smaller towns have a point? For sure.

"I certainly view it as a major issue," says state House Minority Leader Cathy McMorris, R-Colville. "It's not unusual to still hear about it."

The issue is not going to go away. A federal judge recently sent NOAA-Fisheries back to work to provide more-specific documentation for its plan to meet salmon recovery goals without breaching dams. President George Bush last month visited Ice Harbor Lock and Dam in Walla Walla County and reiterated his position the dams would not be breached on his watch.

Regardless of the merits of breaching dams, the Seattle City Council butted itself into a matter that was none of its business. The council's propensity for such off-topic and grandiose gestures, such as its weeks-long, angst-ridden debate over whether to support U.S. troops, has provoked ridicule from all parts of the state. It's even being held up in at least one county council race as a way not to do business.

Also, Seattle's resolution was hypocritical since, at the time, the city utility was trying to acquire more hydropower produced at dams and because the city itself operates dams with no salmon passage provisions.

After the resolution was passed, council members got some counseling from a chagrined Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, the Seattle Democrat who leads a chamber with representatives from liberal Fremont to conservative Franklin County. King County Executive Ron Sims, who was in Pasco to talk to some school kids, stopped by the local newspaper's editorial board specifically to distance the King County Council from the Seattle City Council's decision.

The City Council's then-President Margaret Pageler, who was out of town when the vote was taken but felt it was an inappropriate topic for the council, penned an open letter to Eastern Washington. Although filled with thoughtful acknowledgment of critical connections between the urban and the rural, regrettably, the letter bore only Pageler's signature.

In another overture, four council members, including resolution sponsors Heidi Wills and Richard Conlin, traveled to Eastern Washington to visit the dams. Council members were contrite, admitting perhaps they were too hasty.

Nice of y'all to stop by. But, alas, the resolution still stands.

Sitting through several endorsement interviews of City Council candidates in recent weeks, I saw a couple of the perpetrators actually acknowledge their mistake in statesmanship. I got to thinking about a much more meaningful gesture that could bring some healing to the state and disarm the city's detractors.

If the resolution was such a mistake, rescind it

Kate Riley, Times editorial columnist
Seattle City Council Should Mend this Breach
Seattle Times, September 8, 2003

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