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Drippy City Now Dry; Residents Perplexed

Is it logging, ozone, or just those tree-chopping newcomers from sunnier parts? - a letter from Seattle

DROUGHT in Seattle? What does this mean?

That in a clamshell is what many Seattle residents are pondering now that the city has enjoyed at least a temporary respite from its much-publicized water shortage.

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When a dry spring arrived on the heels of a warm winter that showered relatively little snow on the nearby Cascade Mountains, city officials restricted the watering of lawns, urged voluntary conservation, and took other steps in mid-May.

As a result, many of the usually burbling fountains in downtown Seattle have been mute and dry this summer. And in residential areas, many normally lush lawns were yellow with thirst until early this month, when heavy rain finally came just in time to protect the vegetation from Fourth of July fireworks.

For some residents, the drought has been irritating. "I can't breathe this dry stuff," a Pike Place Market vendor griped before the rain came - the kind of tongue-in-cheek complaint common here in recent months. But for most natives and longtime residents of the "Emerald City," the water shortage is unsettling primarily because it suggests that the region's much-vaunted ecology may be spinning out of balance.

Some blame the continued logging of western Washington. Others suspect depletion of the Earth's ozone layer. But the effects of population growth - particularly housing development - seem to be getting most attention this summer in environmentally sensitive Seattle.

Residents of King County, which includes Seattle, are now debating revised growth policies that would add 53 square miles to the county's designated rural areas, where fewer new homes would be allowed on each acre of land.

According to Lisa Majdiak, supervisor of the county's growth-management project, the intent of the proposal is to promote "more-compact urban development, rather than spreading it out Los Angeles-style."

To be implemented, the controversial measure must be ratified over the next three months by at least 30 percent of the 32 jurisdictions in the county - and those approving must represent at least 70 percent of King County's residents.

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The King County population jumped from 1.27 million to 1.5 million during the 1980s. Like the logging of forests, the steady clearing of rural areas for new housing leaves exposed land less insulated against temperature fluctuations and less capable of retaining valuable water.

Problems with housing development are compounded when newcomers from sunnier parts of the globe move to the Seattle area. Relocating to cloudy, heavily forested western Washington from a sunny clime can seem like moving from a penthouse to a basement. To compensate for the new climate, newcomers are apt to chop down trees and shrubs with abandon so that they can enjoy more sunlight - in marked contrast to the reverence with which the region's original inhabitants, Pacific Northwest Indians, treated the n atural environment.

Contrary to popular perception, the Seattle climate is not particularly rainy, for all its mist and cloudy skies. Average annual precipitation is a little over 36 inches - less than New York.

In general, Seattle residents have responded well to the drought, sharply curtailing their water consumption. A municipal water use goal of 145 million gallons per day - down from more than 200 million gallons of normal daily summer consumption - was exceeded only when temperatures soared into the 90s in late June, setting record highs.

Professional gardeners will tell you that trees with plenty of topsoil have not been seriously affected by the drought. Perhaps it's a sign that Seattle-area residents steeped in the ecology and ethos of the region are in good position to cope with climatic change, if it comes - even as they strive to prevent it.

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