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Tacoma’s water source now listed as a top endangered river

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The Green-Duwamish River system that runs from Stampede Pass to Seattle’s Elliott Bay is the source of much of Tacoma’s drinking water, and is the possible source of water for the proposed methanol plant that would use 10.4 million gallons of water a day to convert natural gas to methanol. The controversial project faces yet another hurdle with the environmental group American Rivers announcing this week that the Green-Duwamish River is on its annual “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” list.

The listing is meant to draw attention to threats to the waterways caused by outdated dams and poor floodplain management, as well as pollution and development decisions that endanger salmon and local communities.

“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers at a tipping point,” said Michael Garrity, Puget Sound-Columbia Basin director for American Rivers. “It’s a shame that despite some progress in recent years, Seattle’s only river remains a shadow of its former self, where salmon are suffering due to a dam without fish passage, a degraded floodplain and pollution. The good news is this is the year that we can put the Green-Duwamish and its salmon on a path to a robust recovery.”

Decades of pollution, development and a lack of fish passage at dams along the river have taken their toll on the waterway and its salmon and steelhead runs. Chinook salmon populations, for example, have

dropped more than 90 percent.

These interrelated challenges demand a holistic approach that includes pollution prevention and clean-up in the Duwamish, restored floodplain habitat in the lower Green, and fish passage for salmon and steelhead at Howard Hanson Dam. Estimates of restoring the waterway hover at about $1 billion. The potential of drawing water out of a river system with many environmental challenges for the proposed methanol plant’s water needs raises yet another wrinkle in an already overlapping blanket of concerns. While not specifically detailed in the American Rivers listing of the Green-Duwamish as its number five endangered river, the proposed methanol plant’s high water use dovetailed into its listing.

“We use the list as a way to address decisions and threats as they come up,” Garrity said.

The aim for listing the river on the national endangered list is to gather political pressure so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commits to completing a permanent fish passage system at Howard Hanson Dam by 2021, with interim passage in place for the 2017 salmon run. American Rivers is urging local, state and federal agencies to increase funding for habitat improvement, shade protection and pollution prevention – steps that are essential for restoring the river’s health.

The heightened profile of the river, therefore, adds another spotlight on the already “paused” and controversial plan by Northwest Innovation Works to build the world’ largest methanol-conversion plant on the Tacoma tideflats, which would use water provided by Tacoma Public Utilities.

“It creates a lot more uncertainty,” Garrity said. “It is in Tacoma’s best interest for all the other players in the Green-Duwamish watershed to do their jobs.”

Many local governments, state agencies, and the watershed’s salmon recovery organization also support an increased focus on addressing the threats to the Green-Duwamish.

“Along the middle stretch of the Green River, over the past 15 years, we have planted more than half a million trees, protected more than 1,300 acres of open space, and restored more than 200 acres of

wetlands and floodplains to natural habitat – and we don’t want to see our investment go to waste,” said Mark Isaacson, director of DNRP’s Water and Land Resources Division.

“The listing of the Green/Duwamish River as the nation’s fifth-most endangered river epitomizes the need for us to make tough choices,” said Doug Osterman, Salmon Recovery Manager for the Green/Duwamish and Central Puget Sound Watershed (WRIA 9). ”Do we solve the river’s problems by continuing to pour money into bigger and harder levees and a dam that blocks fish passage, or do we set back levees, promote mature vegetation and allow salmon and steelhead into and out of the upper watershed and its 100 miles of prime fish habitat? Fish passage at Howard Hanson Dam is Puget Sound’s next huge opportunity to stave off extinction of Puget Sound’s Chinook salmon, steelhead and killer whales.”

The annual “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Rivers are chosen for the list based on the magnitude of the threat, any critical decision points in the coming year and the significance of the river to people and nature.

It just so happens that the lease between Port of Tacoma and NWIW for the site to build the proposed methanol plant that would involve water from the endangered Green River basin is set for April 25.