If Karrie Kohlhaas had her way, everything that’s happening on the block she lives on in Delridge would be a citywide movement: rain gardens instead of grass, bio-swales instead of parking strips and permeable surfaces instead of pavement. Designing a block here and a project there is good, but not good enough she says, because there’s been so much devastation to our waterways.
“But what would it look like if we started doing this as a citywide kind of movement, where instead of ‘Oh, here’s a cluster here and a project going on in this neighborhood,’ what if every project could include some environmental component to it?” Kohlhaas asks.
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There was a time that Kohlhaas thought that rain gardens were just ponds with lilies. Then she received an email from Stewardship Partners, a non-profit, committed to building 12,000 rain gardens by 2016. Would she like a rain garden built on her front lawn at no cost and could she find neighbors willing to do the same?
She and another neighbor, Tanya Baer, replied immediately. “Within four days we had ten families on our block who were committed to participating in the Stewardship Partners rain garden cluster project.” Stewardship Partners has jump-started rain gardens in Puyallup, Burien, Tacoma and Ballard among others.
Building rain gardens cluster-style with several per block — or as part of the green infrastructure of an entire housing or business complex — is the most effective, says Stewardship Partners' Aaron Clark. That’s where most of the private land is in an urban environment. “On top of that, the environmental impact of clustered rain gardens [is huge]. Rather than ten thousand or twenty thousand gallons of storm water being collected in one place, you multiply that by ten. Then you’re talking about hundreds of gallons of pollution that are no longer going into Puget Sound or, in this case, into Longfellow Creek.”
Two years earlier another neighbor on 25th Avenue in Delridge, Jay Mirro, decided to look for funding to solve the problem of standing pools of water on the block during the rainy season. He applied for funding through the Neighborhood Street Fund. Funding was approved through the Bridging the Gap Levy Citizens Oversight Committee. In the fall SDOT began re-grading the street, adding curbs and new sidewalks. Most importantly to rain garden advocates like Kohlhaas, parking strips will have bio-swales and native plants instead of grass.
Kohlhaas points to large concave trenches. “There will be different layers of sediment and that’s where the bio-swales will go. So the water from the street can come into the rain garden.”
She wishes there were funding for bio-swales and curb cuts along all of the street's parking strips. There will be two swales on the east side of the street and between six and eight on the west side of the street. The King Conservation District chipped in $25,000 for the nutrient rich soil that makes up a bio-swale, soil that absorbs run-off. Stewardship Partners contributed $2,000 for native plants and the city an additional $1,000.
These kinds of improvement programs aren't easy. Though the city’s storm water code mandates that the Department of Transportation address run-off, many jurisdictions say they just don’t have the money. The state Department of Ecology, responsible for maintaining water quality under the Clean Water Act, faces appeals from some 12 cities and six counties, including King, over new state permits that require them to upgrade storm water pollution standards by August 2013.
Seattle Public Utilities began to tackle the problem of run-off and sewage overflow in 2001 with its so-called “SEA Street” project near Carkeek Park. Intense storms from climate change were overloading the drainage system, causing sewage to overflow into the sound. Ten years later a drainage project in Ballard back-fired because of inadequate soil analysis.
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