Carol Smith's picture

Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park -- which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.


First Nations group fights district for water rights

A battle over resource management and clean water on south Vancouver Island came to a head when Halalt First Nation filed a petition with B.C.'s Supreme Court to review plans for a new water project before proceeding, reportsMark Hume of the Globe and Mail. Halalt opposes the North Cowichan District's plan to dig two wells and install a 1 million gallon reservoir to provide clean drinking water for residents in the Chemainus area because the wells would draw water from an aquifer below Halalt lands.

Halalt First Nation has objected to the plan since 2003, maintaining that the aquifer cannot support that many peoples' water needs without negatively impacting the connected Chemainus River and its fish stocks, reportsMark Kiemele in Klahowya. They are requesting creation of a watershed management plan, as well as involvement in monitoring programs for the area, before the project goes ahead.

Residents in the Chemainus area currently get their water from surface sources, which regularly suffer from high bacteria counts due to heavy rains, according to Hume. The District issues advisories several times a year for residents to boil their water. The District says drilling wells will draw up clean water, and it has agreed to halt their use if its three-year monitoring program shows negative impacts.

Halalt Chief James Thomas worries the District wouldn't be able to stop the pumps once they were supplying thousands of homes in an area he says is already overdeveloped. The North Cowichan municipality has admitted it wants to pursue the well project mainly for financial concerns.