Green Acre Radio: Threats still haunting Puget Sound

But can rain gardens and smarter ways for handling storm runoff banish some of the hovering dangers?

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Oil on the water of the Duwamish River.

But can rain gardens and smarter ways for handling storm runoff banish some of the hovering dangers?

We just celebrated a Mexican feast, the Day of the Dead. Each and every day, there are haunting threats facing Puget Sound waterways each and every day.

Click on the audio player above or here to listen.

No Day of the Dead celebration is complete without a haunted boat tour of the region’s scariest body of water, the Duwamish River. La Dele Sines recounts an evening in 1909 when a chauffeur drove six ladies past a bay near Georgetown. The driver was going 30 or 40 miles an hour. “Which is quite fast in 1909 and he didn’t make the corner. That corner is known as deadman’s curve. The car went over into the water.” Two ladies were rescued by a boatman and two found 250 yards up the bank. “Two of the ladies were never found. so as you go around Costco you might hear a woman’s voice looking for her sister Mary Ann. 'Mary Ann, I'm over here. I’m holding on.' ”

But it’s not just ghosts that haunt this river and all Puget Sound waterways. It’s a toxic stew of persistent industrial carcinogens, oil and lead from cars, and even raw sewage that runs into the Sound when it rains or sewers over flow.  James Rasmussen directs the Duwamish River Clean Up Coalition. “The toxic load on the salmon here are just about as much as they are in Puget Sound and there are fish advisories for salmon in Puget Sound. Unlike 1909 when the two ladies perished in the waterway and a majority of pollution came from industry and burning coal, today 80 percent comes from oil and other pollutants washing off hard surfaces. “And that storm water and the pollution that’s in it is by people like you and me.”

Further North Chris Wilke with the Pugetsoundkeeper Alliance checks out an oil sheen on the Lake Washington Ship Canal. “We don’t know where this came from if it came from storm water over the weekend or from a ship or a boat, but it’s evidence that there’s petroleum that’s getting into our water system.” Wilke say rain gardens and low impact development can prevent oil and other pollutants from entering waterways. Last month the Department of Ecology issued a draft storm water permit that sets standards for green infrastructure on new development. “These permits are our biggest chance to turn the corner on stormwater pollution and put proper management measures in place to reduce the toxic threat to Puget Sound.” Unfortunately, says Wilke, the draft is full of loopholes such as firm vegetation or impervious surface requirements. “When you pave over more than 10 percent of a watershed the water quality suffers.” Exemptions include special zoning or soil standards that local governments can determine are incompatible with rain gardens.

But uphill from the haunted boat tour on the Duwamish is an example of how low impact green building strategies work — 120 acres that clean polluted run off on site. Two years ago Neighborhood House High Point Center, a 100-year-old non-profit resource center for immigrants, and the High Point housing complex were rebuilt to contain run off and conserve energy.  Architect Sally Knodell with Environmental Works shows off a finely designed open air trough with a rain drop grating and pervious pavement that absorbs and cleans pollutants. “You can follow the path of the rain water as it flows through the trough and then visibly dumps into this planter bed here.” Native plants contain run the off  and overflow is released into another rain garden or bioswale on the boulevard. “And there are little depressions in the curb that allow the stormwater to flow from the street into the bioswale.”  Bioswales on every street of this 120 acres are interconnected. “So all of this water instead of flowing into the city’s pipes and then going to the treatment facility at Discovery Park or wherever and getting dumped back into Puget Sound either infiltrates into the ground or flows to this big pond about six blocks away and it sits there.”After that it’s slowly discharged through a wooded slope into Longfellow Creek and eventually into the Duwamish.

Rain gardens and green building strategies are becoming the design of choice for those who recognize the urgency to curb run off and opportunity to create what many call living and breathing design. What’s missing, says Chris Wilke, is regulatory language in storm water permits that require such techniques for new development.

“Ah swha lah kwa kwee sta shot.” Back on the haunted tour, Native Snohomish storyteller Mike Evans shares a story about the bear who represents “the people.” “And the people are strong. And that’s what they’re going to have to be to overcome what they have created for themselves.” Speaking of the people, the Department of Ecology is accepting public comments on the draft for storm water permits until Feb. 3.

 Green Acre Radio is brought to you this week with support from the Russell Family Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. Produced through the Jack Straw Foundation and KBCS


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.