Early settlers saw the value of the Duwamish River, claiming land beside it in 1851 for what would become Georgetown. But, the river's natural...

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Early settlers saw the value of the Duwamish River, claiming land beside it in 1851 for what would become Georgetown. But, the river’s natural meanderings became too lazy for a bustling outpost like Seattle.

The Duwamish had to be tamed. Engineers straightened and dredged it beyond recognition, beginning in the early part of the last century. Today, the river’s banks are nearly straight, like any good transportation corridor. It is an easy passage from Tukwila to Elliott Bay. Though the name remains the same, it is not the river once plied by the American Indians it is named after.

With the river straightened and the surrounding salt marshes drained, industry quickly moved in. Left in progress’ wake were memories of what the river used to look like, and enough contaminants to sink an ecosystem.

There is hope for the chemical-sodden river. Discussions about the cleanup and restoration of the Duwamish are at long last nearing action, although nothing major will happen for at least two years while the mess over who is responsible and what needs to be cleaned is being sorted out. But, finally, comprehensive plans are being drawn up to save the Duwamish.

While smaller habitat-restoration projects have been going on for years, a heavily polluted five-mile stretch of the Lower Duwamish, closest to Elliott Bay, was given Superfund status in 2001. Next year, the Environmental Protection Agency — working with Boeing, the city of Seattle, the Port of Seattle and King County — will release a study laying out what kind of contaminants lurk in the river sediment, where they came from and what needs to be done. The agency’s cleanup plan will then be unveiled in 2009.

So far, the four parties working with the EPA have signed on for the study, but have not agreed how much to pay for the cleanup, which will surely cost many millions of dollars.

The Superfund designation for the Lower Duwamish will be useful only if two things happen: collaboration, and the limitating of future contamination. The river’s future health depends on businesses, environmentalists, government and residents meshing different visions and needs.

On the surface, these priorities seem at odds. Environmentalists want a clean river, with restored habitat, that can be used by the riverfront communities of South Park, Georgetown and the Duwamish Tribe. Businesses want to continue to use the river for transporting goods. Governments have to embrace all visions of a cleansed river that does not hurt the region’s economy.

Seattle’s only river made possible a robust manufacturing sector, allowing for goods to be moved out of one of the world’s most ideal port locations. The bulk of Seattle’s manufacturing and industrial sites can be found between Beacon Hill and West Seattle. Citywide, industrial companies generated about $31 billion in revenue last year, with many of those businesses located south of downtown, along the Duwamish.

“If the river hadn’t been ‘tamed’ through the straightening project, it would have been impossible to build Boeing Field, the original home and production center for the Boeing Co., or to develop most of the Duwamish valley floor for industry,” said Dave Gering, executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, based in Seattle.

The river also is home to barges packed with supplies and fuel bound for Alaska. And, the barges and tugs that herd container ships into Port terminals are docked in the Duwamish.

But the Duwamish is about more than just economic currents. Between the straightened contours of the river’s mouth and its still-remaining bend in Tukwila, the Duwamish is a living poster of what used to be and what still is possible.

Indeed, small restoration projects on the community level already are bringing back the river’s natural past. Duwamish Tribal Council member James Rasmussen likens the efforts to vital sprouts of grass poking up and growing through cracks in a sidewalk.

“We are trying to create those cracks on the Duwamish,” said Rasmussen, who has been involved in the river’s cleanup for nearly 25 years.

What many involved with the river want is a process that takes into account how the Duwamish’s many uses affect adjacent communities and businesses.

B.J. Cummings, of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, for instance, is working to amplify the voices of the communities through a public process that will incorporate meetings and interviews with the groups touched by the river’s cleanup. The exercise, similar to something the Georgetown neighborhood did on two projects, will culminate in a “vision map” for the Duwamish by the end of the year.

In Georgetown, the coalition worked with the neighborhood on a cleanup plan for the Slip 4 site and for river access along Eighth Avenue South. Unfortunately, the Slip 4 project has been put on hold because PCBs are still being found. Still, involvement from Georgetown was critical to Seattle’s plans for salmon habitat and for empowering the city’s often-forgotten residents south of Sodo.

Cummings is realistic about the river’s future. She knows it is never going to be the coiled river of the past. “Obviously, the industrial uses are part of that, too,” she said, referring to the visioning process for both the smaller restoration efforts and the Superfund endeavor. “Rather than reacting, we are trying to lead what the cleanup plan is,” she said.

Ridding the river of polluted sediments can and will be done. But how can recontamination of the Duwamish be stopped? The state Department of Ecology is heading up that piece of the cleanup.

The state will have to work with King County and Seattle on a solution. Stormwater runoff, carrying contaminants, pours into the Duwamish from nearby neighborhoods like West Seattle, and from neighborhoods as far away as First Hill.

In the end, can a heavily industrialized urban river double as a place where salmon and kids can swim?

The answer matters, not just for the Duwamish River but for the entire Puget Sound ecosystem and its nascent cleanup.

“If we don’t find a way we can do this here, in the most urban area, we won’t be able to do it there,” Rasmussen said, referring to the broader reaches of Puget Sound.

The passion and intensity surrounding the efforts to restore the Duwamish — the city’s watery thoroughfare and, in some ways, its gutter — are impressive.

As planning for full-scale cleanup moves ahead, it will be important for all stakeholders to continue listening and respecting one another’s views, and keeping their eyes on the prize.

Entrenchment is not what the river needs. The Duwamish can, and should, be transformed into a healthy, viable river that reflects the diverse community that has grown from its banks. The Duwamish is too important to fail.

Ryan Blethen’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is rblethen@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com