On October 24, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) hosted a trip to the Cedar River Watershed for a group of 36 Bhutanese community members, comprised mainly of seniors, friends, and family from the Tukwila area, who have been living in Washington for no more than five years. The trip was the latest in an ongoing effort by SPU to teach the community about our water supply.
The Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS), an organization involved in connecting newly arrived refugees to their local environment, facilitated the logistics of the trip with SPU, after Alan Kaf, an ECOSS employee, proposed the idea.
Kaf coordinated the event and interpreted throughout most of trip, with help from several Bhutanese community leaders, including Yug Dabadi, a volunteer reporter for Bhutan News Service and the former vice chair of the Bhutanese Community Resource Center, and Padam Pokhrel.
“So far, all the Bhutanese participants mentioned that the trip was exciting, informative, and nostalgic,” Kaf said. “Nostalgic in a sense that they used to drink water from springs, rivers, and lakes back in their home country Bhutan, and this trip connected them to their past.”
SPU provided transportation from Tukwila to the Cedar River Watershed in North Bend, WA, where the group participated in a guided bus and walking tour of the facility, which included stops at Masonry Dam, Masonry Lake, Chester Morse Lake, and the Cedar River Education Center. Park Ranger Julie Stonefelt lead the tour, while interpreters translated her presentation along with questions from guests.
One of only six protected watersheds in the country, the Cedar River Watershed spans 90,563 acres of Seattle-owned land and provides drinking water to about 1.3 million people in the greater Seattle area, flowing through public faucets in the International District, Tukwila, Mercer Island, and beyond.
The Cedar River is an unfiltered surface water supply that produces some of the best water in the world, with surrounding pristine forests acting as a natural filtration system. Mountain snowmelt and rainwater collect in two reservoirs—Chester Morse Lake and the Masonry Pool. In an average precipitation year, the two reservoirs have just enough water storage for one water cycle year, making management of the water supply a delicate balancing act, especially in times of drought.
“We are only as successful as our customers,” said Michael Davis, the Director of the Environmental Justice and Service Equity Division at Seattle Public Utilities, who joined the Bhutanese community on the watershed tour. “It’s really important for [the community] to understand what the resources are and how they benefit them, but more importantly what their role is in helping us maintain them.”
During the tour in October, the watershed was experiencing a water shortage due to a lack of rainfall over the summer. The tour group was able to see firsthand just how much the water in the reserve had receded during the shortage. Although recent rains have increased our region’s water supply to nearly normal levels and brought us to the lowest advisory stage of our water shortage plan, a potential water supply problem may still exist, with El Nino expected to bring a warmer, drier winter with less snowpack.
Done in language, the tour broke barriers and inspired knowledge of the importance of our natural resources and the part we play in preserving them, Kaf explained.
“Our people were able to connect with our water resources,” Kaf said. “Now they know where their water comes from, how the water is being treated, and what impact they could make to our limited drinking water supply, if they conserve water every single day.”
The majority of refugees from Bhutan living in the United States are descendants of Nepalese migrants, known as Lhotshampas, who settled in southern Bhutan in the late 1890s. As the group became more successful, they were seen as a threat by the ruling elite. Nation building in Bhutan from 1958 to 1985 lead to measures that discriminated against the group, politically and socially, and ultimately denied them human rights and citizenship; displacing thousands of families and individuals who have lived in Bhutan for generations. Bhutanese refugees were finally allowed to resettle in third countries in 2007. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, between 2012 and 2014, 730 Bhutanese refugees arrived in Washington state.
The Refugees of Shangri-La, a documentary about the group, reports over 107,000 Bhutanese have spent as long as 20 years living in refugee camps in Nepal established by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Thousands more are living outside the camps in Nepal and India, and some in North America, Europe, and Australia.