August 12, 2002
Tour the Cedar River Watershed
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
Hop aboard! We're about to embark on a three-hour tour through the beautiful Cascade Mountains and enter territory rarely traveled by the public.
Throughout the summer every Saturday and Sunday, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) naturalists lead reserved public tours through the protected Cedar River Watershed. In addition, they take private organizations on weekday tours and elementary classes during the fall and spring months.
Our tour group of ten gathers at the Cedar River Watershed Education Center, a large building with Cascadian architecture that opened in North Bend, October 2001.
Except for our traveling companions, we're strangers to one another but a common goal brings us together. Each of us hopes to gain a clearer understanding of where drinking water comes from and how it's managed.
Our tour guide and naturalist Pierre LaBarge greets us. He asks if we know what a watershed is. "Well, an area that water drains into for drinking water," a lady in the group responds.
"A watershed is all the land that drains water to a central location," LaBarge clarifies and points to a map of the area's rivers and communities. He talks about the watershed's history and how nearby Rattlesnake Lake came by its unusual name.
Then, at his invitation, we cram into a white Ford van. Our first stop-the town of Cedar Falls.
The watershed has restricted unauthorized public access, an enforced mandate set in place in 1908 to protect water quality. The town's security was increased after September 11.
Cruising through Cedar Falls, LaBarge announces, "This old historic town was established in the late 1800's. It's the birthplace of Seattle City Light."
Cedar Falls was a municipal town, the heart of community life for City Light, Seattle Water and railroad families in the first half of the 20th century.
Though no one lives in the white homes with green trim today, the town remains the hub of watershed management activities.
Shady trees and a row of elegant street lamps circa 1900 line the sidewalk of the quaint town. It's easy to imagine the people who lived here years ago, relaxing on their front porches, sipping lemonade and listening to the crickets belt out a concert on a summer night.
Soon, we leave Cedar Falls and head to Masonry Dam. There, we walk across the top of it to view the Masonry Pool and Chester Morse Lake, a lake that stores 32 billion gallons of water. It seems to spread toward the horizon, glistening in light reflection. Rainbow and bull trout call this lake their home, a safe place where fishing isn't allowed. On the lake's surface, a loon floats lazily. One member of our party spots an osprey through her binoculars. LaBarge talks to us about the dam and tells us that it generated 30,000 kilowatts of electricity when the plant opened in the early 1900s.
Today, it only churns out 1.5 percent electricity for the City of Seattle as the majority of Seattle's power comes from the Skagit River system. He offers a short course on salmon, holding up colorful laminated cutouts of different species for visual aesthetics. Select salmon, such as Chinook, steelhead and coho, will soon have passage into the drinking water supply below the dam. Says LaBarge, "Up to six thousand fish will be allowed through" and adds that sockeye won't have a pass and will be trucked back down the river.
When the temperamental Northwest weather decides to rain, we hurry back to the van. LaBarge drives us to the top of a mountain, zipping 1,000 feet up a winding road.
On our way, the sun reappears, lighting up the forest of Douglas fir and mountain hemlock in luminescent green. A deer leaps through shrubs so fast only one of us actually sees it. At the top, billions of mosquitoes welcome us in delirious delight. We stop swatting at the annoying insects to take in the breathtaking sight of Chester Morse Lake, now dwarfed by the landscape below us.
Back in the van, we rumble down the steep mountain and reach our final stop - the Cedar Falls, a picturesque waterfall that cascades into a pool of water encircled by ferns and moss-covered tree trunks. It serves as the grand finale to a great show of nature.
As our tour group returns to the Center, LaBarge reminds us that Watershed Management has a commitment to provide high quality water that is clean, clear and reliable. We depart with more appreciation and understanding of the City of Seattle's effort to protect and conserve drinking water for 1.3 million people.
Although Woodinville receives its water from the Tolt River, SPU naturalist Ralph Naess says that the tour provides everyone with a better understanding of a protected watershed. "The purpose of the tour is to give people the opportunity to understand by seeing the source and to understand the importance of conserving water," he says.
Before or after the tour, the public will enjoy visiting the Education Center and its landscaped grounds. It has several unusual points of interest. One unique garden has a display of different types of drums set strategically among native plants.
Through an irrigation system, spurts of water shoot out of copper pipes and strike a melodic drumbeat with each splash. A MIDI-sequencer controls and syncopates the different rhythms reflecting diverse cultures, such as African, Asian and Native American.
The public restroom has an entertaining quality also. A lush alpine garden grows right out of its roof, which serves as a model for alternative roofing surfaces. Even though it looks like rockrose and ferns grow right into the building, Naess says that the roof has a barrier and that a living roof reduces runoff and can last 50 years or more.
Tours, open to the public, require reservations. Groups meet 9:45 a.m. through Sept. 1 on Saturdays or Sundays at the Cedar River Watershed Education Center on Cedar Falls Road. Cost is $7 adults, $5 children and seniors. Organizations with an interest in water conservation can reserve weekday tours at no charge. A limited number of field trips during fall and spring are available for fourth through sixth grade classes. Reservations must be made well in advance.
To schedule a tour, call (206) 233-1515. For school field trip information, call the Woodinville Water District at (425) 487-4102.