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Originally published September 20, 2011 at 3:51 PM | Page modified September 21, 2011 at 1:38 PM

Corrected version

Guest columnist

Brightwater is latest milestone in environmental leadership that stretches to 1950s

Guest columnist Louise Miller reflects on the new Brightwater sewage treatment plant, the regional environmental leadership and collaboration that made it possible and what the feat means for the future.

Special to The times

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BRIGHTWATER'S grand opening Saturday is an extraordinary accomplishment as well as an opportunity to take stock of why we're celebrating its success.

Completion of the sewage-treatment plant in Woodinville fulfills a promise that clean water and a healthy environment will be here for the next generation. Wastewater treatment is the No. 1 pollution-prevention system in our region, essential for our quality of life.

The project put people to work during one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. From 2006 to 2011, Brightwater created more than 3,000 direct construction jobs with an annual payroll of $88 million. These workers built infrastructure needed to support future economic growth and vibrant communities that attract skilled workers and business investment.

We completed the largest expansion of our regional wastewater treatment system within 3.3 percent of its baselined budget established in 2004, when accounting for inflation. Brightwater has received several awards for planning and delivery, and the State Auditor's Office in 2009 stated the project should serve as a management model.

Above all, Brightwater is a celebration of regional cooperation and a reminder that even amid what today seems like an increasingly acrimonious political climate, progress is still possible.

It took a decade to bring Brightwater from concept to completion. The siting and planning involved literally hundreds of meetings and thousands of public comments to guide decisions on the facility's location, design and features. Construction ultimately required the agreement of 11 agencies and jurisdictions.

What made Brightwater possible are the regional values and the environmental ethic that goes back decades to the origins of our regional wastewater-treatment system.

Most residents are too young to remember the environmental crisis of the 1950s. Lake Washington was too polluted for swimming and fishing because of excessive nutrients discharged into it from small, inadequate treatment plants. Overflowing sewage and septic tanks contaminated beaches. Yet no one jurisdiction had the power or the resources to address the problem.

A grass-roots movement of ordinary citizens, led by attorney and future regional leader Jim Ellis, went door to door to engage neighbors and spur local and state leaders finally to take action to clean up filthy waterways.

In 1958, voters approved a ballot measure to establish the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, or Metro, and a comprehensive plan to address wastewater treatment was put into place.

Metro's service area was determined by drainage basins and the natural flow of water, not jurisdictional boundaries. Plans moved forward to build two large regional plants at West Point in Seattle and in Renton. Local sewer agencies in south Snohomish County contracted with Metro, which was later acquired by King County, for wastewater treatment.

Brightwater was sited and built in Snohomish County to serve a portion of the service area that has benefitted from King County's wastewater facilities for nearly 50 years. Comprehensive plans decades ago, and later in the 1990s, affirmed the need to one day put a facility in this area to serve the growing population.

Yes, Brightwater's project cost is substantial at $1.8 billion. But the value of the regional wastewater system built and paid for by our predecessors to clean up Lake Washington is priceless in terms of the legacy it left us.

What Jim Ellis taught us is that the environment isn't confined by the lines on a map, and neither are the decisions required to protect it.

Protecting our natural resources requires regional planning and collaboration, and these principles will serve us well in tackling the challenges ahead, such as the cleanup of Puget Sound and the Duwamish River.

Celebrating Brightwater as we are this week is a good indication that we have what it takes to succeed.

Louise Miller served two terms as a member of the King County Council, retiring in 2001. She is a board member of the Seattle Center Foundation and a vice president of the Seattle Opera Board of Trustees.

This guest column originally said Jim Ellis was Metro's first executive director. He served as Metro's legal counsel.

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