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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Natural Drains

Air Date: Week of

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All over the country dirty storm water is piped directly into creeks and lakes. In Seattle, a novel alternative is instead using storm water for landscaping and as a result, beautifying the neighborhood. Gordon Black from KUOW reports.


CURWOOD: There’s a movement across the nation for neighborhoods to adopt and restore local streams, and the fish and other aquatic life they support. In Seattle alone, since 1999, $26 million dollars and countless volunteer hours have been spent on bringing back city creeks. But new studies show that storm water may be negating these efforts. Runoff laced with antifreeze, lawn chemicals and pet feces is killing fish, including some fragile salmon species.

From Seattle, Gordon Black of member station KUOW reports on an alternative. Instead of piping dirty storm water into creeks, officials are trying a botanical solution, one suited to the city’s wet climate.

BLACK: Broadview is a neighborhood of ranch style homes in north Seattle that was laid out in the 1950s. The streets are wide here, but lack sidewalks. Ditches about a foot deep line the roadways to carry away rain water. Denise Andrews is a policy manager with Seattle Public Utilities and has driven these streets countless times.

ANDREWS: This is a typical North End neighborhood. You have smaller, single family homes. Some have very nice landscaping. But, in general, as you pull up in front of someone’s home, the street just sort of peters out into their property. There’s no piped infrastructure. A storm water sheet flows across the street and just follows the path of least resistance down the hill.

BLACK: These sheets of water pick up speed. Then they dump right into a creek that the city has been trying to restore as salmon habitat.

ANDREWS: In a good storm, you’re flushing all of the fish eggs, all of the bugs that the fish live on. It’s basically like flushing a toilet.

BLACK: After witnessing urban runoff destroy their carefully restored salmon stream, city officials decided to tackle the source. They worked up an alternative drainage plan, but they needed a neighborhood willing to endure nine months of construction to build it. They got lucky by attracting the interest of Joe O’Leary, a pragmatic civil engineer and long time Broadview resident.

O’LEARY: I think the key point, of course, was that it was unique. What the city was proposing was very different from what we had, not only in this neighborhood, Broadview, per se, but throughout the city, as well.

BLACK: O’Leary liked the idea of improving storm drainage so much, he went door-to-door to enlist support. Although the city was picking up the $800,000 tab for improving drainage on the block, Seattle utility officials admitted nothing like this had ever been tried before in the country. Still, O’Leary and several of his neighbors were buzzed by how they could help restore salmon runs in the creek, and maybe end up with a prettier street in of the bargain.

O’LEARY: We have 17 houses on the block. We had 16 people that we finally came up with that were convinced of the project. There was one neighbor, of course, that was adamantly opposed to it.

BLACK: O’Leary thinks that even that neighbor is now pleased with the results. It’s easy to see why. An unremarkable street has been transformed into a park like landscape that invites a stroll.

O’LEARY: What’s been so very positive are the people from outside the neighborhood that have been visiting and just think it’s a wonderful project, a very positive thing that the city has done.


BLACK: Instead of a pencil-straight road, the street has been narrowed and curves gently. Front yards blend into a border of shrubs and trees planted in long hollows called bio-swales. These swales are the heart of the new drainage system on the block. The plants are a mixture of decorative species like butterfly bushes and dogwood, and water tolerant grasses and irises. They provide double duty, filtering out harmful pollutants as well as absorbing moisture.

This is important because asphalt changes the chemistry of storm water, says Derrick Booth, a University of Washington research geologist who studies urban watersheds.

BOOTH: Water that runs off a parking lot has a very different set of constituents than water that has fallen through a tree canopy, soaked into the ground, and moves slowly as ground water. So we have both a quantity problem and a quality problem.

BLACK: In fact, the new drainage system tries to mimic the forest floor. Now, say utility officials, 98 percent of storm water is soaking into the ground, just as it would in a natural setting.

ANDREWS: That’s a phenomenal number. It basically means that if you could apply this technique in areas where it’s appropriate, where it’s draining to creeks, where there is no formal infrastructure currently in place, you can severely reduce the amount of storm water that’s wrecking the creek.

BLACK: Geologist Booth is impressed by the success of the pilot street, but is cautious about how well these natural drains will hold off in the long term.

BOOTH: They have not yet been stressed, if you will, or hammered by a really major storm to see how they perform in the once every five years, once a decade events that we do sometimes get around here, and which certainly do provide some our most severe water quantity problems.

BLACK: Following the success of the pilot street, work crews are putting the finishing touches on a more ambitious project--a six-block steep hill. And the experiment is quickly growing. Over the next two years, Seattle Public Utilities is planning to create bio-swales with plantings in a 15-block area of the city.

For Living on Earth, I’m Gordon Black, in Seattle.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through Grade 12. And Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President’s Council.



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