The summer sockeye run that travels through Seattle and possibly the most urban fishery in the region is struggling. The number of fish coming into Lake Washington has dwindled, and only a lot of money and the efforts of a hatchery have kept this nonnative run going. Nonetheless, locals dream of a return of a...

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photographed by Steve Ringman

IT ALL STARTS here, at Upper Cedar Falls in the Cedar River Watershed, where the water is clear, cold and delicious.

Two-thirds of the Seattle metropolitan area’s drinking water flows from this clean and wild place. And nearly all of the watershed’s 91,000 acres is the property of the people of the city — just 36 miles and yet a world away from downtown.

One of our longest-running obsessions starts in this place, too. For here was spawned the idea to plant a run of sockeye salmon that puts a gleam in a fisherman’s eye as shiny as any apple Eve ever offered. This sockeye run — passing from the river through Lake Washington, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, Elliott Bay and on to the sea — is, in a good year, the largest in the Lower 48.

These are combat salmon, contending with the state’s most urbanized watershed — arguably the most altered on the West Coast. What’s more, they are the people’s catch. No fancy boat or expensive travel or gear required; never mind the waders, the fly tying, the Patagucci fuss. Lake Washington sockeye are the fish even the grandkids can catch, right here at home.

Whenever there’s a sockeye season, the whole town goes crazy, and both the lake and the bay are crammed with anything that floats. When we’re not fishing for them, we’re taking the out-of-town relatives to see the salmon at the locks, proudly pointing and saying, “See! See, see, see! That’s . . . us: Seattle, the city with skyscrapers and salmon, too.”

Condos and opera and salmon swimming right through the most metropolitan waters in the state. Who doesn’t want that? And some of the most pristine drinking water anywhere; sweet, freshwater straight from the mountains — so clean it doesn’t even need filtration.

There’s just one problem. Nature’s not cooperating.

While there may have been a small native sockeye run in the Cedar historically, sockeye in the river today are not native to the Cedar, but descendants of imports from the Baker River, a tributary of the Skagit, planted in the mid-1930s. And, lately, they aren’t doing well. Sockeye returns were the lowest on record last year, and this year were too tiny to warrant a fishery. The last sockeye season was in 2006. When the next one might happen is anyone’s guess.

Which leaves this hard question: Why do we insist on perpetuating a run of fish that wasn’t even there in any numbers to begin with, isn’t listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, costs a fortune to sustain, and may go belly up anyway?

TO ATTEMPT to answer that, it helps to know how we got in this fix to begin with and what forces are at work.

There was a basic problem right from the start in 1901, when the city of Seattle built its Landsburg dam on the Cedar River with no fish passage. The dam diverted much of the Cedar’s flow to create a water system for the city, and in the process sealed off about half the habitat used by the region’s most prized fish: salmon.

Even back then, it was illegal to block fish passage in a river. But apparently nobody raised much of a stink until 1936, when the state Department of Fisheries pointed out the violation to the city’s water department. But the city held firm.

In a reply nearly three years later, the director of the water department wrote back with stilted, throat-clearing politesse: “The thing that worries us is that if salmon in any number pass our dam, they are bound to die after spawning and make our water unpalatable and unsatisfactory, due to the decay of the dead salmon.”

The fish remained fenced out. And much more insult to the river was yet to come.

The Cedar River used to empty into the Black River, which flowed into the Duwamish. But in 1911, after the Cedar flooded Renton, the town dug a 2,000-foot-long, 80-foot-wide canal to reroute the course of the Cedar to the north. Next, from July to October 1916, to construct the Lake Washington Ship Canal, Lake Washington was lowered 8.8 feet, to reach the same level as Lake Union — which dried up the Black River. The Cedar was now connected to the south end of Lake Washington, and its outfall was the ship canal.

The replumbing hooked Puget Sound via the ship canal to a freshwater lake: the perfect recipe for cooking up a sockeye fishery. It didn’t take long for the can-do crowd to notice. Sockeye were planted in the river not long thereafter.

Today the city has tried to rectify some of the habitat destruction, providing passage for chinook and coho above its dam. But sockeye, which spawn in stinky masses, unlike chinook and coho — remain excluded.

Ah, sockeye. So beloved, so in the way of progress, all at the same time.

As far as the city is concerned, nobody should be surprised by the role of technofixes in this watershed; it’s what 100 years of building infrastructure intended to serve a diversity of uses looks like: Water for people; water for multiple species of anadromous fish, each with their own flow requirements that also differ through their life cycles; water for the locks; and for the recreational jewel that is Lake Washington.

If this city were ever to consider another official seal, it would do well to consider the sockeye. It would be hard-pressed to pick a better candidate to capture our have-it-all, eco-wannabe zeitgeist.

LAKE WASHINGTON sockeye are among the most studied fish in the region. We check their ear bones, scales and DNA. Count returning adults and out-migrating smolts from towers, viewing windows, traps, weirs and rafts. At the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe alone — which comanages the fish with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife — about 30 staff members labor on sockeye and other fisheries. For all that, with so many factors affecting sockeye survival, including conditions in the ocean, we don’t know quite what to expect, year in and year out, in our quest for the red fish.

Carl Moses Sr., fisheries commissioner for the Muckleshoot, says it best if you ask him the what-is-it-about-sockeye-anyway question. First comes the you’re kidding, right? expression. Then the answer: “They are a tasty fish.”

Lake Washington sockeye also were the first fishery the tribe went out for after the 1974 decision of U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirming treaty tribes’ right to half the catch, and there has always been an air of celebration around the fishery. Families join in and gather to watch, whether they fish or not; a couple even got married on the dock during one opener.

In its desire to rebuild the dwindling run, the tribe pushed Seattle Public Utilities, which operates the dam, hard in a settlement signed in 2006 to spend $45 million (to be adjusted annually for inflation) to make up for damage done to their historic salmon-spawning grounds. That includes up to $30.5 million for a sockeye hatchery on the Cedar to replace the rinky-dink outfit built in 1991 as an emergency effort to resuscitate the run. The hatchery will be double the size of the old one, with the capacity to pump up to 34 million sockeye smolts a season into the Cedar.

To critics — and hatcheries have plenty — it seems nuts: Despite continuous operation of the hatchery all this time, the run is still sputtering. To them, doubling the size of the hatchery looks like doubling down on stupid. They see Mission Impossible: The climate is baking; pavement is metastasizing in the lower watershed, and exotic fish, planted in the lake for sports fishermen, are gobbling sockeye smolts like Goldfish crackers.

“Why have we decided that what is wrong with Lake Washington is its sockeye run, when it was never historically there in big numbers? Why are we putting this round peg in a square hole?” says Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. “If the small hatchery was a failure, there is no evidence to suggest a larger one will be a success.”

The nonprofit conservation group warns that the hatchery will hurt wild fish in the Cedar River system and advocates, instead, rebuilding fish runs with other strategies, such as preserving and improving habitat. “This is a very long and old story, and it goes back to the belief in the silver bullet of the hatchery, that this can solve our problems,” Beardslee says.

Shortly after Mayor Mike McGinn took office, the former Sierra Club leader received a four-page, single-spaced letter from a half-dozen scientists and hatchery critics, pleading for him to abandon the plan. The mayor wrote back with a two-paragraph, thank-you-for-your-comment nonresponse that said experts had already looked into this long before him, and he was satisfied with their decision. Any risks, he promised, would be managed with a so-called adaptive management, or learn-and-adjust, policy-as-you-go approach.

To the city, the decision is a done deal, because of the settlement agreement. The Washington Legislature has also directed the utility to make up for fencing fish out with the dam.

To the tribe, this is no time to give up, poor returns or not. The sockeye, after all, have surprised everyone before, rebounding to a mega run of 458,005 in 2006 after earlier declines. But while the run has been in a swoon ever since, returns have rebounded from record lows before. So it’s too soon to say whether a corner is truly turned. In any event, the tribe’s not letting the city off the hook. Without a hatchery, with all the habitat destruction going on in the lower watershed (traveled Highway 169 through Maple Valley lately?), the tribe is convinced there would be no sockeye at all.

With a smack of his hand on the conference table, Donnie Jerry Sr., a member of the Muckleshoot tribal council and chairman of the tribe’s fish commission, makes it clear that’s not acceptable. “We don’t look at two years from now or one year from now; when it comes to natural resources we never give up. Sockeye, deer, elk, whatever it is. We are here forever. We don’t move around like non-Indians from job to job. This is our homeland, and we are here for thousands of years. That’s where we come from. We didn’t cause the problem but we are here to solve it. We don’t quit. We don’t give up on the fish.”

Phil Hamilton, vice chairman of the fish commission, was a teenager at the tribe’s first sockeye opener. He sums it up this way: “We are the salmon people.”

THE SALMON people. It’s a bigger tribe than the Muckleshoot, though their claim, of course, is older, deeper and codified by treaty. But ask those people of just about every race mesmerized at the fish ladder what salmon mean to them. People like Mike Kelley.

Standing on the Ballard Locks in July, Kelley wouldn’t miss a trip to the locks at sockeye time. “They are the best-eating fish; it’s the red, rich meat. And at first light, they all jump. They’ll even jump into your boat!” he says. A retired Teamster truck driver born in Ballard, Kelley now lives in Florida but is here visiting the grandkids — and the sockeye. “I like looking at fish,” he says, as sockeye cruise by the viewing windows, shimmering in a wet, otherworldly ballet. Nothing kills the magic, no matter how many times you’ve seen it: the pageant of these fish, back from wandering the great pastures of the sea, returning home.

Their bodies are all gleaming silver muscle, their jaws starting to take on that characteristic hook, their energy all grace and power as they swish past the glass; wheeling, floating and flashing in the sunlit water. The kids know something cool when they see it, crowding the viewing windows as their parents let the video roll, capturing that vacation moment for home movies replayed back in Ohio, Germany, Japan, all over the world.

Now 63, Kelley hasn’t lived here since 1979, but he still remembers the glory days of two-week sockeye seasons, fishing on the lake. So do a lot of people.

Pat Pattillo remembers, too. Special assistant to the director for the Fish and Wildlife Department, he’ll let you know he drinks the salmon Kool-Aid deep as anyone.

He grew up in Seattle back in the days when you could grasp salmon right out of Thornton Creek — today one of the city’s most hammered urban streams. But nobody’s giving up on it, either; we’ve spent millions to improve and even daylight stretches of the creek through the baking pavements of North Seattle. “It’s really about the values of the Northwest,” Pattillo says. “There have always been salmon, and we want to believe there will always be salmon.”

Losing the summer sockeye fishery on Lake Washington and Elliott Bay? It would be like losing that view of the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier that comforts us as we sit, gridlocked on Interstate 5. Somehow we don’t feel like all the other schlumps who have fouled their nests, as long as we can still see those snowy promises of wilderness not yet wrecked — and wet a line for a sockeye, right downtown.

“Can you really have it all?” Pattillo asks. “Buildings and cities and salmon? That’s the question.”

Lynda V. Mapes is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Steve Ringman is a Times staff photographer.