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Coming full circle on plan to clean Seattle’s waters

Lake Washington Credit: Seth Stoll

The City of Seattle has announced the conclusion of successful negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology. These negotiations resulted in a proposed Consent Decree – an agreement among parties in return for an end to civil litigation – that will bring Seattle into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

This landmark Consent Decree is the first in the nation to offer a local jurisdiction the flexibility to prioritize both separated stormwater and sewage control measures in an "integrated plan." This means local residents and local waters will receive the greatest environmental benefits possible, and get the most bang for their buck. Today’s agreement will serve as the framework for decades of public works projects, including mitigation of combined sewer overflows, known as CSOs. It is a major accomplishment in the effort to clean up our waters – both fresh and saltwater.

Why do we need this agreement? Currently, stormwater washes more than 8,200 tons of toxic metals and volatile chemicals into our city’s water ways. During heavy downpours, overflows of raw sewage add to this polluted mix. In 2012, 190 million gallons of combined sewage and stormwater spilled into Lake Washington, Lake Union, local creeks, the Duwamish River, and Elliott Bay. This toxic pollution creates significant health and environmental risks.

As Chair of the Libraries, Utilities and Center Committee, which will review the proposed Consent Decree, this is a full circle moment — the culmination of decades’ of effort that began as an amazing civic endeavor known as Forward Thrust.

Forward Thrust, a familiar phrase to long-time Seattleites, is something novel to the newcomers and younger folks among us.

“What’s Forward Thrust?” a 20-something friend recently asked me. It was a revelation to realize that something that ranked up there with apple pie and motherhood was strange territory to those who had not been there, shoulder to the wheel, fighting for a better tomorrow.

Forward Thrust had its beginnings in the 1950s. To fully understand its monumental scope, you have to travel back to those "innocent" (more like clueless) times when we were dumping over 30 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Lake Washington – every single year.

The conditions were abysmal. Visible bits of toilet tissue and other alarming detritus floated in Lake Washington. On hot days, the senses became overwhelmed by foul odors and outhouse smells roiling off the once pristine lake. "No Swimming" signs stood guard over all the local beaches. The region was suffocating, drowning in its own effluent. 

Solutions to the crisis of polluted waters and to other regional problems, such as unregulated sprawl and gridlocked traffic, sprang from a single creative source — the monumental vision of James "Jim" Reed Ellis, a local attorney. Ellis recognized that we needed a major offensive. In November of 1953, Ellis walked into a Municipal League meeting, briefcase under one arm and a fledgling plan to create a new government: a metropolitan government — soon be known as Metro — that could deal with problems on a regional level. He named his multi-pronged approach, "Forward Thrust."

Forward Thrust grew into a series of ballot measures, some to be decided at the city level and others to be voted on countywide. In March of 1958, the first ballot measure went to the voters. It passed in Seattle, but was defeated in other parts of the county. Initially, it was limited to cleaning up the lake, but in the 1960s, it would expand to include other capital improvements: parks, fire stations, swimming pools, a domed and ultimately doomed stadium (the Kingdome), an aquarium, an improved zoo, and rail rapid transit.

I well remember those efforts of the 1960s. Along with members of the League of Women Voters, the chambers of commerce and other so-called "good government" groups, I was one of the army of doorbellers who tried to explain to householders the merits of cleaning up Puget Sound and enacting a series of measures to enhance the region. 

Sad to say, Forward Thrust was not universally popular. On more than one occasion I met with householders who ordered me off their porches or slammed their doors. One especially irate voter said that if I didn’t leave he would set his dogs — two drooling, surging beasts barely restrained behind the screened doorway — upon me. I did not linger to argue my case.

But times were changing, and by 1968, 12 Forward Thrust measures made it on the county ballot. The Kingdome stadium measure passed, but bonds for a rapid transit system did not.

Meanwhile, the "Metro" initiative was underway, responsible for reviving Lake Washington, creating sewer systems where there had been none and developing better wastewater treatment.

Eventually, Metro would take over regional transit systems and sewage treatment. And, after a federal court ruling requiring a more equitable system of representation, based on "one man, one vote," Metro became the responsibility of King County.

Jim Ellis, the visionary father of Metro, is still with us. Now 90, he remains active in many of his projects, including the Mountains to Sound Trust and a move to expand the Convention Center for a second time.

With conclusion of negotiations and the imminent Council vote on the Consent Decree, Puget Sound area lakes and waterways will be freed from the threat of pollutants. City negotiators, the EPA and Department of Ecology have created an approach that will allow us to prioritize smart investments to protect the environment. The promises of Forward Thrust, seemingly unreachable at times, will at last become the center of this region’s most enduring legacy.

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