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Is a 'green' idea discredited by a Seattle drainage project gone awry?

In Ballard, a project that was supposed to be a model for dealing with stormwater turned into a fiasco. City officials rushed the project as "shovel ready" and eligible for federal stimulus money.

Pools of stagnant water weren't supposed to be part of the Ballard rain gardens project.

Pools of stagnant water weren't supposed to be part of the Ballard rain gardens project. Rita Hibbard/InvestigateWest

Black sheets of vinyl block off some of the most problem-plagued parts of the Ballard rain gardens.

Black sheets of vinyl block off some of the most problem-plagued parts of the Ballard rain gardens. Rita Hibbard/InvestigateWest

A woman walks a dog by the rain gardens in Ballard.

A woman walks a dog by the rain gardens in Ballard. Rita Hibbard/InvestigateWest

There have been problems with a project to add drainage in a Ballard neighborhood that already had sidewalks.

There have been problems with a project to add drainage in a Ballard neighborhood that already had sidewalks. Roger Valdez

When Seattle was planning its first extreme-green makeover of a city block, residents competed for the honor. And in 1999, the winning street in the Broadview neighborhood got a gorgeous facelift complete with new sidewalks and verdant roadside rain gardens with shrubs and grasses.

But when the city recently tried going green in the Ballard neighborhood, homeowners there felt like they got stuck with the booby prize.

The rain gardens installed by the city last summer and fall haven’t worked as planned. The gardens, which look sort of like shallow, sparsely-planted ditches running between the road and sidewalk, fill with water — and stay filled up. Some of the rain gardens drain over the course of hours or days, but some become mini ponds until the city comes to pump out the water.

Many of the residents are not pleased. They worry that the swamped gardens are a drowning hazard for young children, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and will lower their property values. There’s even a neighborhood blog calling for their removal.

“We feel badly,” said Nancy Ahern, deputy director for utility-systems management for Seattle Public Utilities, the department that installed the rain gardens. “It’s been hard on this community.”

More is at stake than the ire of residents. Seattle, like metropolitan areas nationwide, has a century-old legacy of streets, driveways, parking lots, and roof tops that create massive volumes of runoff. Rain gardens are a key technology for curbing stormwater, which can trigger overflows of raw sewage, trash salmon streams with torrents of water, or scoop up and dump millions of pounds of toxic pollutants into Puget Sound, Lake Washington, the Columbia and Willamette rivers, and beyond. Scientists say that controlling these flood waves of stormwater is essential to recovering salmon and cleaning up the environment.

And so cities and counties nationwide have been eager to install rain gardens, which are viewed as environmentally friendly and often less expensive than traditional stormwater solutions that rely on pipes and drains.

This week, Washington State University and the nonprofit Stewardship Partners launched the 12,000 Rain Gardens campaign with the goal of getting 12,000 of the stormwater gardens installed in the Puget Sound region by 2016. Along with Seattle, Portland has committed to the widespread installation of rain gardens, and smaller cities including Puyallup and Lacey are promoting their use. The Washington State Department of Ecology is working on an update of requirements spelling out when and how rain gardens and other green stormwater technologies — also called low-impact development — must be used.

But Ballard’s rain garden fiasco is a very visible reminder that green solutions aren’t always quick, easy, and predictable. The project offers a cautionary tale to be heeded nationwide: rain gardens have limitations.

“Low-impact development technologies are very site specific,” said Art Castle, interim executive vice president at the Building Industry Association of Washington, an organization representing the housing industry. Castle, who served on an advisory committee that helped the state craft its low-impact development rules, says he believes rain gardens work, but worries about mandates for their use.

The Ballard rain gardens were meant to specifically help with the problem of sewage spills triggered by heavy rainfalls. Seattle is planning to spend $500 million over the next 14 years to reduce the sewage overflows by repairing the existing system, building large storage systems to handle the stormwater runoff, and installing green infrastructure. Portland has spent $1.4 billion on the “Big Pipe” projects to curb its storm-sewer problems through more conventional means, in combination with greener solutions. Port Angeles is working on plans for a $40 million fix to its overflows with new sewage lines and a storage tank.

The combined sewer overflows — also called CSOs — can contaminate lakes and bays with disease-causing pests including salmonella bacteria, the parasite giardia, and Norwalk-like viruses. People can get sick by inhaling small droplets of the polluted water, or through contact with skin, eyes, ears, and cuts. Exposure can cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, fever, hepatitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and swimmers itch.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 25, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Green infrastructure is no different from any other infrastructure in two respects. To work, it has to be designed and installed properly, and to provide its promised benefit over time, it has to be properly maintained. These are not, generally speaking, “passive” systems. The Ballard exercise discussed in this article apparently suggests a shortfall on the first requirement. But there has been much too little attention paid in the green infrastructure discussion to the long-term issues, responsibilities and costs of proper maintenance both in private (real estate development) and public applications . We have a very poor track record, locally and nationally, on long-term maintenance and reinvestment in infrastructure as it goes through its presumably useful life. A single example makes the issue very poignant with regard to water pollution and Puget Sound: on-site private septic systems might be thought to be the first green infrastructure. They were a big improvement on privies and less. Today unmaintained improperly functioning on-site septic systems are a major contributor to bacterial contamination of shellfish beds in many areas of Puget Sound. The green infrastructure discussion has to embrace long-term performance, not just short-term appeal, before it becomes the answer de jour for water runoff issues.

Posted Mon, Apr 25, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree that rain gardens must be designed and installed correctly with local site conditions in mind. When done properly, rain gardens function extremely well and improve over time. The public should not worry that rain gardens are unpredictable. Stewardship Partners has designed and installed more than 60 rain gardens that all work as planned. Our partner, Washington State University, is a national leader in the science behind rain gardens, and has developed free resources to share that knowledge with the public at 12000raingardens.org.

Stacey Gianas, Program Manager
Stewardship Partners

Posted Mon, Apr 25, 12:29 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a much needed follow-up on what happened in Ballard. Thank you Crosscut for creating such an intelligent and comprehensive discussion on infrastructure that I am happy to participate in.

Operations and Management is a huge problem with infrastructure in this country. Once it is built we generally forget about it until it fails. With road repair, for example, it has been shown the annual maintenance keeps the road in very good condition. Once the road is allowed to deteriorate beyond a certain level than costs go up exponentially and eventually full scale replacement is required. It is truly sustainable to maintain what we have.

Green infrastructure is not exempt from this problem faced by grey infrastructure. In fact, because these systems are relatively new, the pre-installation testing, monitoring and planning becomes all the more critical. With some luck, the failure of the rain gardens in Ballard can be a cautionary tale that helps guide effective installation of these important new approaches to storm-water pollution.

Posted Mon, Apr 25, 2:51 p.m. Inappropriate

What about installing more water loving plants like willows or blueberries? Seems like the SDOT failed to analyze the water absorption rate problem. Drains are one solution, but the reality is that a water loving plant, like a ceder tree is necessary to soak up the water... oh wait, where did I see a photo of this land covered in water loving cedars? Oh yeah, those historic photos of Seattle 100 years ago. This area is a temperate rain forest and any garden has to respect that.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 1:26 a.m. Inappropriate

The title of the article is misleading and inflammatory. Of course in the eyes of the sort of morons who reflexively hate anything "green" or "progressive" at all, (go look at the comments to this same article on SeattlePI.com) such a headline is a one-stop confirmation of their predjudices. When in fact the article itself is simply a reasonable articulation of the problems that have arisen in one mis-implemented project out of many more that have succeeded.

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 5:03 a.m. Inappropriate

if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck,,,,

In reality a ditch that infiltrates stormwater is a great idea to curb overflow into the sewer system.

But to allow pollutants to flow into these ditches with oil, pesticides, soaps etc. contaminate soil and groundwater. Where's the prefilter?

You create these makeshift wetlands to help the environment and don't remove the pollutants, what happens to the birds? ducks? raccoons? that wade through the toxic mix you concentrated?

I guess thinking ahead isn't SPU's strong point.

salmonjim

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 6:12 a.m. Inappropriate

My wife and I have been involved with this issue in Sunset Hill/Ballard for several months; www.ourseattle.org/rore . To quantify the as-built CSO retention capacity of this important Ballard pilot CSO project I personally measured each of the 93 bio-retention cells in the neighborhood and calculated they provided 35,000 gallons of retention capacity, not 50,000 as planned. The new ... new design from SPU with more bio-soil and underdrains will be lucky to achieve half that amount - truly.

This is very disappointing to say the least, but not completely unexpected when you study the actual history, cost figures and performance metrics of previous SPU GSI (green stormwater infrastructure) projects as I have. High Point, the "emerald jewel" has expensive underdrains throughout, a cistern system, and at the start of construction scraped off the upper 6 feet of soil across the entire site, replacing it with costly, augmented, well draining material then regraded everything. One has to question whether the above design solutions could ever be applied in existing Seattle residential neighborhoods. For this reason and many others, I find it disingenuous of SPU engineers to cite High Point or GreenGrid, or SEA Street in Broadview as comparable projects to the pilot project in Ballard. It is an apples to kiwi comparison. Dig into (inadvertent pun) the project costs for the Broadview and Pinehurst SPU GSI poster children; many millions of dollars fronting a handful of houses with lovely bio-swales. They won national awards, but at such a high cost to install, the vast majority of Broadview residents are going continue to wade thru backed-up sewage in their basements well into the 22nd century before Seattle can afford to help them too. Because of this, Broadview residents I spoke with are suing Seattle as I type and SPU dithers.

SPU, albeit with all the best Green intentions, in my opinion does not fully understand or appreciate "cost-effective" design. It is all ratepayer income to them. For some organizations "cost" isn't a problem it's a feature. That said, I do not mean to disparage the many fine administrators and engineers I've spoken with at SPU. They are not individually responsible for a collective culture entrenched long before any spent their first day on the job. Our elected representatives coupled with public apathy have lead us all to this predicament. And we have to be the ones to fix it.

The irony is SPU is being punished for doing the right thing years ago. During the 1992 drought (and even earlier) they actively promoted less use of their major product; water. As a direct result, though customers have expanded 40% since 1972, product sales - water, have declined steadily. This creates a revenue squeeze on the agency, which customers like us experience as some of the highest water and stormwater drainage rates in the country.

The pending stealth CSO capital projects worth $500 million dollars over the next decade are the organization's life-preserver. SPU will do anything to make PR problems like the Ballard bio-ponds fade away from public view while they roll-out the GSI scoping process in the month of May to targeted agency friendly audiences. This is very sad, because GSI is extremely important tool to employ in critical CSO projects. Most normal citizens find all this too geeky to pay attention, but when water rates shoot thru the roof they are going to be casting about to blame somebody. Local pols should board the ClueTrain now or get out of Dodge before the storm...water washes over them. We all have to pay attention and help SPU find affordable green stormwater infrastucture designs that really work and encourage more experimenting ... even if it hurts until a solution is found.

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