Photo by Alysa Hullett
Through innovations like rain gardens and rain barrels, Seattle residents can help reduce the amount of stormwater runoff that flows into the Puget Sound.

Through RainWise program, city combats stormwater pollution

By Alysa Hullett, UW News Lab

Last Thursday evening, the Wedgewood Elementary playground was not filled with children, but adults eager to learn how to use their own backyards to mitigate the sewage and toxins that are regularly pumped directly into Puget Sound and Lake Washington.

This is caused by stormwater overflows, an issue which has become an enormous problem, according to Steve Appleyard of Seattle Rain Garden. “It’s almost unbelievable actually.”

That’s why the city recently started offering a "RainWise" rebate program for 80 to 100 percent of rain garden construction — that is, vegetated depressions which absorb extra water. Cisterns can also be installed, or what Seattle Public Utilities’ RainWise manager Bob Spencer refers to as the “Arnold Schwarzenegger" of rain barrels.

Three-thousand Ballardites living in the area bordered by NW 65th St, NW 85th St, 15th Ave NW and 33rd Ave NW could qualify for the rebate, along with residents in North Union Bay, Delridge and parts of Wedgewood.

Currently, the city operates under a combined sewer-system, which means that water flowing off roofs and being flushed down toilets is all rolling into "one big pipe," Appleyard said.

While the system used to be functional, Seattle now has enough roofs, streets and driveways to overwhelm the capacity of the pipes. Now during any heavy-rainfall event, the pipes overflow and send sewage water straight into the Sound.

Washington’s Department of Ecology estimates that one-third of all the polluted waters in the state are due to stormwater runoff.

In response to the pollution, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is enforcing laws such as the Clean Water Act to force cities to combat it.

In compliance with these environmental standards, Seattle’s 15-year plan aims for 12,000 rain gardens built around Puget Sound by 2016, which will divert about 60 million gallons of stormwater from contaminating local waters.

Right now, Spencer said there are only an estimated 150 rain gardens in the area. But nearly six times that amount have been registered for installation, said Cari Simson at Stewardship Partners, a nonprofit that encourages RainWise program involvement.

Despite the recent momentum, she said “we still need to move faster.”

If the city fails to live up to its agreement, the city of Seattle could face over $350 thousand in fines owed to the Department of Ecology and EPA.

In the future, Simson hopes the rebate program expands to citywide service, but until then, her group is focusing on the areas they have to work with. This has led to clusters of rain garden owners congregated in the same neighborhood.

Ballard resident Beth Woolford, member of one of the four or five local clusters, was inspired to install her own rain garden by her neighbors’.

She made the decision based on “aesthetics [of the garden] and principle,” behind it, she said. Another perk: she can now mow less lawn, she said.

Despite the localized effort, Spencer said the problem is even larger on a national scale.

He said that Seattle, along with cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, are actually ahead of the curve in terms of separating sewage.

“This is a National phenomenon that everyone’s working for,” he said. [The rain gardens] are a win-win all around. The home-owner gets a beautiful and functional landscaping feature … [while] doing their part to protect Puget Sound.”

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