E. coli in Seattle…Almost

The recent scare of E. coli near Seattle got me thinking about the city’s drinking water. Seattle has some of the cleanest drinking water in the country, which always prompts me to be amazed when I see people buying five-gallon jugs of water. The reason it is so clean is because the city owns the entire watershed of its primary water source, the Cedar River. The only chemicals it adds to the water are chlorine and fluoride, with a little lime to adjust the Ph. Seattle Public Utilities also finishes the water with ozone and a UV treatment to kill giardia and cryptosporidium.

The Cedar has been the city’s primary source of drinking water since inadequate water pressure during Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889 led to an 1,875 to 51 vote, just 32 days after the fire, to approve a one-million-dollar-bond to form a publicly owned water system. After an additional 12 years of haggling, planning, and construction, water from the Cedar reached Seattle on January 10, 1901. Roughly 30% also comes from the South Fork Tolt River Watershed, 28 miles east of Seattle, which the city first tapped in 1964. (People north of the Ship Canal generally get Tolt water, although water gets mixed in the system, particularly at the Maple Leaf reservoir, so a tap could deliver pure Cedar, pure Tolt, or a mix of the two.)

[nggallery id=33]Clean water has been a central concern since the earliest days of the city’s involvement at Cedar River. It has not always been easy. In 1906, the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway proposed to run their train line through the watershed and along the Cedar River. An editorial in the June 21, 1906, Seattle Times stated that if the trains went through, “the people of this City will become impregnated with the microbes of typhoid fever, dysentery and every foul disease known to humankind.” The solution ended up being relatively simple, health inspectors got on board at Landsburg or Cedar Falls, and locked the doors to the restrooms between the two areas, thus ensuring that no ‘foul diseases’ made their way into the Cedar River and into the city’s drinking water. The city also had a requirement that city employees had to be vaccinated annually for typhoid.

More problematic were the towns, homesteaders, and logging camps that dotted the watershed. For example, the logging town of Barneston covered 80 acres. The largest town was Taylor, home base for the Denny Renton Clay & Coal Company, where a couple hundred people lived and made tile and brick. Nearby was Sherwood, as well as two Weyerhaeuser logging camps. The sewage of both towns drained directly into a creek that flowed into the Cedar River, according to another Seattle Times article. To alleviate these problems, a drainage ditch was eventually built at Taylor to prevent water from reaching the Cedar River. Many logging camps also had portable toilets, even in the 1920s and 1930s.

Despite the avowed concerns of City officials about clean water, which led to an ordinance in 1908 that restricted access to the watershed, a detailed study from 1912 noted that “in every camp or mill where men are employed, hogs are an important adjunct…and have a free range and access to the water.” Cattle and sheep were also common and unrestrained, particularly along Taylor Creek. Such conditions “would not be tolerated in a properly controlled watershed.” The report, however, concluded that “the water of Cedar River, Cedar Lake and some of the small tributaries is excellent.”

Adding to the problems in the watershed was the widespread logging. About 83 percent of the watershed was logged. Such denudation did not specifically alter water quality but did lead to much greater duration, high turbidity events. The loss of a healthy forest ecosystem led to increased soil erosion.

In spite of the recent E. coli scare, Seattle does have amazing water, and certainly better water now than early in its history. We are fortunate that all logging stopped in 1997, and that there has been active forest restoration and removal of old roads. The city also benefits from a Habitat Conservation Plan, adapted in April 2000 to protect the watershed’s endangered species. Primarily this means Chinook salmon but also an additional 82 species—from blue-gray taildropper slugs to peregrine falcon—must be monitored and protected, which will result in a healthier ecosystem and ultimately in cleaner water for everyone, be they plant, animal, or human.

Material for for this story comes out of research I have done for my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

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I also want to thank Ralph Naess of SPU for his help with this story.