A river's path - Tribe seeks protective distinction for the Sauk River

By Scott Morris
Everett Herald Writer


DARRINGTON, WA-- The state Department of Ecology is considering a petition by the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe to make the Sauk River the state's first "outstanding resource water," a protective distinction akin to declaring a narrow, snaking wilderness along the river's path.

The petition, made more than a year ago, had been in limbo until this week, when the state finalized its criteria for listing rivers as outstanding waters.

Jason Joseph, chairman of the roughly 200-member tribe, said the goal is to maintain the river's salmon runs. The tribe's 20-house village is close to the Sauk and Suiattlerivers five miles north of Darrington.

The tribe only has a few commercial fishing boats, down from 15 in previous years. But many still rely on the rivers' salmon runs for subsistence fishing.

"It protects our particular culture, our river," Joseph said of the desired designation.

But the proposal leaves some people in the only town near the river -- Darrington -- wondering how it might affect future development.

If opposition in town is widespread, it could scuttle the idea. The new rules require the Ecology Department to "carefully weigh the level of support from the public and affected governments" before changing the river's status.

Ted Trepanier, an Everett engineer who has consulted for Darrington since 1983, worried that the new standard could effectively ban new storm water or septic systems, or even logging on tributaries.

"I know it's not anybody's intent to do that, but it could be interpreted that way," Trepanier said.

Kevin Ashe, co-owner of the Darrington IGA and a member of the town council, sounded wary of the tribe's idea.

"I think we should be a little concerned and a little skeptical," Ashe said.

If the tribe's proposal were adopted, the restrictions would be drastic. In a new set of state criteria established this week, the strictest definition of outstanding resource waters "allows no further degradation" of water quality.

But while the tribe and many environmentalists support using the state's strictest definition, other less restrictive options exist.

The new criteria for outstanding resource waters -- also called Tier 3 protection -- published by the Ecology Department included a potential compromise. That clause, called Tier 3B, would allow for minor degradation of water quality in an otherwise pristine river.

Inserting Tier 3B into the criteria was deliberate, said Melissa Gildersleeve, a watershed manager with the Ecology Department.

"In all honesty, with a strict Tier 3, we all felt that the Sauk (River) would not be able to meet that anti-degradation standard," Gildersleeve said.

That's because even a town as small as Darrington (population 1,300) could build something new that would degrade the river's water, even if only a little bit, compared with bigger cities on dirtier rivers.

Gildersleeve said environmental groups and tribes are not happy with the Tier 3B compromise, but it might allow towns in Darrington's position the alternative of installing high-tech wastewater treatment that is almost as good as the zero contamination standard.

The impetus for that anti-degradation standard came from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has been pushing states to comply with requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.

The process has dragged, even by bureaucratic standards. Washington state first started working on its criteria 10 years ago. Even now, only 22 states have placed rivers or marshes in the strict "outstanding" category.

"It took us 10 years to get this done because this is so controversial," Gildersleeve said.

She added that states are only required to have the criteria established -- they don't have to have a river that qualifies.

Joseph said the Sauk is a good match for the outstanding resource label.

The reasons:

The Sauk's headwaters are deep in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, with fingers that start near Monte Cristo. It is the major tributary of the Skagit River, which has the state's second-largest spawning runs of wild salmon, after the Columbia. And human population is sparse, so water quality is good even in the roughly 20 miles that meander through private land.

"This will make the pristine more pristine," Joseph said.

He said the new protective status would not affect rafting and fishing on the Sauk. If anything, he said, the new designation should enhance the Sauk's attractions.

Not everybody in town was alarmed by the idea.

Jerry Holmes, plant manager for the Hampton Lumber Mill, Darrington's largest employer with 165 workers, said he did not see how the tribe's proposal would change the way the river is managed. The Sauk already is on the national list of wild and scenic rivers, so companies and landowners have been steered away from putting discharge pipes into the river, he said.

As an example, the mill is entering a joint venture with a new company to build a facility that will burn the mill's waste wood to generate steam and electricity. The company has installed a high-tech wastewater system that involves cooling the water and spraying it as irrigation on a tree farm instead of piping it into the Sauk River.

"This won't impact what Hampton does," Holmes said. "We're already protecting the river."

The distinction between the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Clean Water Act is subtle. The rivers act offers no specific guidance for water quality, but the Clean Water Act provides the legal means for enforcing goals set forth in the rivers act. So even though the Sauk River has been declared wild and scenic, the new protection would draw a more specific line, prohibiting any new sources of contamination.

Gildersleeve said no changes would be made to the Sauk River's status until the public gets a chance to comment.

"It's not something that's going to happen unnoticed," Gildersleeve said. "The Department (of Ecology) plans to set up meetings with the tribe and the town by this fall at the latest. The state's not going to do it if there's not broad community support."

Reporter Scott Morris: 425-339-3292 or smorris@heraldnet.com.


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