Photo by Jerry Gay
A man overlooks the Puget Sound on a sunny day at Golden Gardens. Though the Puget Sound looks pristine to the naked eye, Ballard was responsible for dumping 27 million gallons of polluted water into it in just the month of November.

When it comes to polluting Puget Sound, Ballard takes cake

If there's one thing that Ballard is good at, it's polluting the Puget Sound.

It’s the grim picture painted by statistics for combined sewer overflows in the month of November, a month which brought a whopping 8.28 inches in rainfall at SeaTac , the most in two years. And if you remember the soggy shoes and socks you inevitably had, Nov. 19 brought us the year’s most rainfall -- 2.13 inches -- and was also a record breaker for most amount of rain to fall on that date.

Needless to say, November was wet. And while it certainly freshened up the air after a very dry summer, it also dirtied the Sound -- especially in Salmon Bay within the Ship Canal.

During November, sewer overflows occurred for more than 486 hours in Ballard. There are only 720 hours in a month, meaning for almost 68 percent of the month, Ballard pumped polluted water into the otherwise pristine looking Sound.

More than 27 million gallons overflowed during the month, contributing more than 27 percent of the citywide total for the month.

Ballard is home to just 4,000 homes that are connected to the combined sewer system, comprising just over 1 percent of the total Seattle population. Despite the small percentage the neighborhood comprises, Ballard is far and away the biggest contributor to the problem within the city. While overflow is certainly a problem in other areas, the closest runner-ups all fell under 10 million gallons of overflow for November.

In Seattle overall, there were 98 overflows releasing a total of 99 million gallons into local bodies of water, in just the month of November. It's a number that tops the entire year of 2011, which saw just 78 million gallons-worth of overflow.

November, though, is just an exclamation mark to a consistent problem especially unique in Ballard. No matter how much it rains, it remains a clear and consistent fact that the neighborhood is responsible for about 25 percent of combined sewer overflows in Seattle, Stoltzfus said.

“We have sewer overflow problems citywide because of the way our sewer system was constructed over a hundred years ago, and in Ballard the problem is much more severe than other parts of the city because it’s much more persistent,” said Susan Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for Seattle Public Utilities, the Department tasked with fixing the problem under the Clean Water Act.

The sewer system she’s referring to combines rain and sewage in the same underground pipes. While it was hardly a problem back when they were first made -- there were more trees, plants and dirt to soak up rain -- now hard surfaces, such as streets, driveways and roofs, cause much larger amounts of water to funnel into the sewer system. During storm events where there’s too much water for the pipes to hold, sewage overflow will be released at discharge points. In the Ballard area, there are two major problem points (NPEDS # 150/151 and 152) which release out into Salmon Bay. You can look up real-time reports of raw sewage and a map of combined sewer overflow (CSO) locations at

Problem is, it takes as little as an eighth of an inch for the combined sewer system to overflow at those points, meaning even a drizzle can cause an overflow discharge, Stoltzfus said.

While Ballard residents often point to all of the major developments happening in the neighborhood as a possible contributor to the overflow problem -- an accusation or concern expressed at nearly every development meeting the Ballard News-Tribune has attended -- SPU representatives say that the new developments are hardly the problem.

“Sewer overflow is 90 percent storm water,” Stoltzfus said. “So we don't have this problem when it doesn't rain.”

In other words, it would have to take a significant amount of sewage -- 90 percent more, in fact -- to overflow without rain water.

SPU is tasked with the duty of lessening the CSO problem in Ballard and Seattle as a whole. As the Ballard News-Tribune has reported in the past, SPU is taking different measures to combat the issue. The most immediate measure will take shape in the roadside rain gardens, which will absorb rain before it enters the sewer system.

SPU hopes to build up to 22 blocks-worth of rain gardens at maximum and divert up to one million gallons of water per year with them. In addition, they hope to build a massive underground tank which would hold 5 million gallons of water. The biggest one currently being built can only hold 2.2 million gallons, but there is also a 6 million gallon tank in Bothell. But Stoltzfus says they are having trouble finding a location to build the tank. They would not start work on the tank until 2016, she said.

The cost of these projects, generally, equates to $30 per gallon of water diverted. Without considering how much it would cost to buy property, that would mean a 5 million gallon tank would cost $150 million.

Another idea has been tossed around: A tunnel which would go from Ballard, under the Ship Canal, and to the sewage treatment plant in Magnolia. However, Stoltzfus said the idea is unattractive. The plant is meant to treat straight sewage, while the combined sewer overflow is 90 percent rain water. It would be an inefficient utilization, she said.

While some Ballard residents have been skeptical of the roadside rain garden project -- as the Ballard News-Tribune has reported before -- Stoltzfus said they will be performing more soil testing and analyses to make sure they do it right this time around.

SPU will present the results of the analyses along with results from a community survey at a public meeting on Feb. 12, at the Sunset Hill Community Club (3003 NW 66th St), between 6 and 8 p.m. Residents are welcome to make their comments and concerns there.

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