Friday, December 28, 2007

Creeks are Still Foul

Fixed city creeks are still foul

Salmon are back, but the water is far from pristine, report says


Millions of dollars have been spent restoring Seattle's streams since the 1990s. So what do we get for that investment?

Seattle Public Utilities on Thursday released the most detailed study ever done on the creeks and small lakes in this city -- and possibly any other urban area. The story it tells is murky.

Judy Pickens and Katherine Lynch

ZoomPaul Joseph Brown / P-I

Judy Pickens, left, a Fauntleroy neighborhood environmental activist, and Katherine Lynch, an environmental analyst and watershed ecologist with Seattle Public Utilities, inspect Fauntleroy Creek, which a new report shows often exceeds state standards for fecal coliform bacteria. The creek flows by Pickens' house, at right, and empties into Puget Sound south of the Vashon ferry dock.

Where restoration work was done, salmon splash their way up neighborhood creeks in the fall to spawn. In some cases, residential flooding during heavy storms is reduced as creeks are widened and allowed to flow more naturally. Other stream-related projects help rainwater soak into the landscape instead of pooling on roads and in basements.

But the creeks and lakes would never be mistaken for pristine, no matter how much time and money are invested.

The State of the Waters 2007 report found that the city's waterways are still polluted with bacteria and toxic chemicals. When heavy rains fall, the torrents of water blast baby fish and eggs out of creeks. Fish are blocked from reaching two-thirds of the stream habitat available.

That doesn't mean the efforts to make the streams and lakes healthier are wasted, many say. In addition to benefits to fish and other animals, the wedges of nature tucked into the city provide an outdoor classroom for students and spiritual retreat for residents.

"When you're surrounded by concrete all the time, you can forget how (natural) things work," said Julie Hall, one of the report's authors and strategic adviser for SPU. "There is the quality of life of people who find solace and comfort and a minigetaway in the city ... it's really getting a chance to get out and commune with nature.

"We're really trying to push the envelope with urban ecology, what can we return to the stream," she said. "It's that living-laboratory type feeling and motivating people to get out and appreciate what the planet has to offer."

The city is required by law to clean up the stormwater running off impervious streets, yards, parking lots and rooftops, which carries pollution to the streams. A state study released last month concluded that stormwater was the largest source of many of the contaminants fouling Puget Sound.

The new Seattle study includes data collected beginning in 2001. The 310-page, multivolume report took two years to write. It covers Fauntleroy, Longfellow, Piper's, Taylor and Thornton creeks and Green, Bitter and Haller lakes. A report to be released next year will investigate larger lakes and rivers.

Challenges on all sides

In 2004, Mayor Greg Nickels launched the Restore Our Waters strategy, and the next year the city began the Aquatic Habitat Matching Grant program, giving out close to $750,000 since then to community groups that raised matching funds for doing stream restoration.

Stream habitat has benefited from plantings to shade the water and stabilize banks, and the installation of logs and boulders to slow the flow.

But the hardest work remains.

Urban creeks are plagued with flash floods when water pours off the streets during rainstorms -- more than 60 percent of the city is covered in impervious surfaces. Four of the five streams were rated "poor" for their stream-flow conditions.

Pollutants carried in the stormwater are suspected of killing coho returning to the urban streams to spawn. On average, between 39 and 79 percent of the fish die before laying eggs, according to research led by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. And this year many of the redds, or egg nests, were lost in the December storms, hosed out to sea with a flush of water.

Fecal coliform -- the bacteria that come from poop, in this case from pets, rodents and waterfowl -- have landed Seattle's creeks on the state's list of damaged and threatened waterways.

Lakes were fouled with fecal coliform, too. Their muddy lake bottoms were contaminated with metals, pesticides, plasticizing chemicals, PCBs and chemicals formed by burning oil and gas, the study found.

The sources of the problems are widespread and costly to fix.

"Wherever you live in Seattle, you're affecting a creek and the Sound," said Miles Mayhew of the Restore Our Waters program. "It's not just the folks living right by a creek."

The city, residents and students have taken some steps to help.

The city gradually has altered streets in different neighbors to soak up the runoff so it's cleaner and flows more slowly to the creeks. Residents are encouraged to install rain barrels and rain gardens with depressions that hold heavy rains. Students in West Seattle mapped the dog poop left by pets and their careless owners along Fauntleroy Creek, providing information on where plastic bag dispensers should be installed to encourage people to pick up the waste.

Community outreach is planned to set long-term goals for urban waters, Mayhew said. The State of the Waters report will help shape that restoration work and provides a baseline for measuring progress.

"The city has a very high investment (in waterway health) relative to other communities that I've seen on the West Coast," said Derek Booth, a geologist with the consulting company Stillwater Sciences and affiliate professor at the University of Washington. Booth was interviewed for a segment of the city's study.

"It's not the end," he said, "it's just the beginning."

Fauntleroy's restoration

For decades, West Seattle's Judy Pickens has championed the restoration of Fauntleroy Creek. She helped coordinate work done this past summer that turned a section of creek that was straightjacketed by concrete into a wider, meandering rocky stream lined with ferns and salal. It cost close to $100,000 to restore the 200 feet of stream in a section that ends at the West Seattle ferry dock. Money came from state, county and city grants.

"For that amount of money out in the woods, we could have gotten a lot more footage" of restoration, Pickens acknowledged. The costs are higher because homes, roads and landscaping must be protected while the work is done.

"If we want salmon in the city," she said, "this is the kind of price we're looking at these days."

The restoration also reduced the amount of flooding on the lower stretch of the creek. During the deluge in early December, "we had no flooding of property," Pickens said. "We just had a tremendous volume of water."

Repairs on Fauntleroy Creek have been ongoing. Almost a decade ago, the city installed a $1.3 million fish ladder on the creek, opening up hundreds of feet of habitat.

The creek and its tributaries stretch about 1.6 miles, though most of the waterway remains inaccessible to returning fish. They run smack into a 7-foot drop-off at 45th Avenue Southwest, preventing them from reaching more natural stretches of the stream in Fauntleroy Park.

This fall, 89 coho swam into Fauntleroy Creek to spawn.

Each spring hundreds of children raise thousands of salmon to release into the creek. They name some of the fish and send them off with drum and violin serenades.

"I know some people think they're throwaway fish," Pickens said. "They're not for us."
Water quality graphic

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Green Safeway?

'Green' Safeway wins over Pinehurst

Change of heart by district that fought grocery


Ten years after the Pinehurst neighborhood fought plans for a new grocery store, residents are pushing for the first "green" Safeway in the state.

For years, Safeway has wanted to build an expanded store at its current site on 15th Avenue Northeast, between Northeast 125th and 123rd streets -- considered the center of the neighborhood.

But the proposed development, which included Safeway-owned property zoned single-family, required a change to commercial zoning. Lacking local support and hopes for a building permit, the supermarket chain put the project on hold.

Residents now say the old rancor and controversy are past.

At Pinehurst's urging, the City Council recently passed an ordinance that allows Safeway to apply for a rezoning, paving the way for a larger and more attractive local grocery store as well as Pinehurst's first community gathering space.

Being designed with neighborhood feedback, the store may feature such "green" elements as an eco-friendly parking lot containing less concrete, and energy-saving refrigeration. Other neighborhood priorities are an indoor-outdoor coffee shop with a fireplace, landscaping, bike racks and pedestrian, lighting and safety improvements.

"It's a rare thing for a neighborhood development, but we all came together, put our heads together, and Safeway listened to us," said Renee Staton, a member of the Pinehurst Community Council who spearheaded the effort. "People in Pinehurst are overjoyed."

Adjacent community councils, however, are concerned.

While council representatives call the Safeway project a model for collaboration between businesses and neighborhoods, many take issue with "rezoning by ordinance."

Residents say they fear that the ordinance could set a precedent for the entire Northgate district, potentially leading to single-family zoning changes in the five "overlay" neighborhoods -- Pinehurst, Maple Leaf, Haller Lake, Licton Springs and Victory Heights.

The Seattle Community Council Federation wrote Nov. 30 to Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, chairman of the Urban Development and Planning Committee, urging the committee to reject legislation (such as the ordinance) with proposed land-use code amendments, including the definition of a "block," that related to single-family rezone criteria in the Northgate district.

Calling it a "dangerous precedent," Jeannie Hale, the federation president, wrote that the proposed changes are "contrary to the city's comprehensive plan, the Northgate Plan and most other neighborhood plan policies pertaining to single-family rezones."

The council passed the ordinance Dec. 3, convinced that a staff analysis of legal language was specific to the Safeway project, and unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.

Steinbrueck, who lives in Pinehurst, says there is a great deal of "loyalty" to neighborhood grocery stores because they represent not only food sources but community connections.

In Pinehurst's case, he said, "people also want their neighborhood store -- but no one really likes it the way it is."

Steinbrueck, who believes there was adequate public notification to other neighborhoods, said he and other city officials wish Pinehurst would have supported multifamily or other housing on top of the Safeway, which has been done elsewhere. The new, 50,000-square-foot store will be one story high.

"It's really an ironic situation; our issue is not with Safeway, which is planning to develop a fabulous store based on what people in Pinehurst said they wanted," said David Miller, president of the Maple Leaf Community Council.

The neighborhood groups are considering whether to appeal to the state Growth Management Board.

"We are concerned with the process, the lack of adequate notice to the other neighborhoods about the ordinance -- and the unintended consequences it could have," Miller said. "It's a bad precedent to make a zoning change inside an ordinance."

Even so, Pinehurst is celebrating what it hopes will be an eco-friendly development that will improve livability by giving people a popular place to walk to, gather and "hang out." Residents hope that a new development will spur a few more restaurants and other walkable amenities.

"I'm into single-family residential, but I support the Safeway project," said Brad Green, a 25-year Pinehurst resident. "We want to have a place to meet, and to encourage people to get out of their cars."

P-I reporter Debera Carlton Harrell can be reached at 206-448-8326 or
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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Big Picture

Land Use Backgrounder

Development and construction projects are often destructive to local ecology. For example, stormwater runoff from developed areas can impact water quality in receiving waters, hinder navigation and recreation, and disrupt aquatic life. Site clearing and earth moving during construction often results in significant erosion problems because adequate environmental protection strategies are not employed. In addition, development activities may encroach on productive agricultural land areas and open space. Fortunately, steps can be taken to reduce impacts on previously undeveloped lands and to improve previously contaminated sites.

Brownfields -- abandoned, idled, or underutilized industrial and commercial sites where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived toxic contamination -- are increasingly attractive as potential development sites. For companies whose portfolio contains one or more of these apparent white elephants -- many located in urban cores, near rivers, rail hubs, and interstate highways -- there is new hope for turning them into productive assets. Though they present several challenges, these environmental millstones may offer competitive advantages and benefits for firms seeking to acquire or relocate sites.

continue reading

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Builders Account for Global Warming ? Is it Time?

City Council wants builders to account for global warming

Seattle is poised to become one of the first cities to require large construction projects -- whether condos or freeways -- to account for their greenhouse gas emissions.
But legislation passed Monday doesn't resolve a thornier question: how local governments want builders to curb gases that contribute to global warming.

Those choices could include requiring buildings to be more energy-efficient, charging fees for projects with large carbon footprints or possibly even rejecting permits.

The City Council, in a unanimous vote Monday, took a first step toward regulation. In March, city departments will start evaluating greenhouse gas emissions -- from the energy used to make concrete to pollution from cars that a building's residents drive -- when reviewing proposed projects.

"It's useful because departments aren't currently doing this," environmental attorney David Bricklin told the council last week. "But you're only scratching the surface with this, and you can't go home and think 'We've dealt with the issue now.' "

Seattle's vote follows a string of court rulings -- including one by the U.S. Supreme Court -- that classify greenhouse gases as pollutants that can be regulated.

King County, the first county to pick up on that idea, started a greenhouse-gas monitoring program in October. In both cases, the requirements apply to public and private projects large enough to undergo state environmental review.

"It is perhaps a small step, but an important one," said outgoing City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, who sponsored the legislation. "We need to start down this path."

It's unclear what, if any, impact the legislation would have on public transportation projects, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. But decision makers ought to have better information about how different options would contribute to global warming, said Dennis McLarren, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

He also urged the council to quickly identify how they'd like private developers to respond to climate change, and add those steps to city codes dealing with energy efficiency, transportation or land use. "Unless the city gets pretty specific about what it wants ... there will be a tremendous amount of uncertainty," McLarren said.

In Portland, for instance, the city is considering levying a fee on developers who only do the bare minimum to meet energy efficiency codes, Bricklin said.

Garrett Huffman, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish County, said that organization already has green building checklists that the city could borrow from. Those specify how everything from insulation to window glazing to the choice of thermostat can reduce a building's energy consumption.

"There's no need to reinvent the wheel -- put those things in an incentive basis where they make it worth our effort to do it," he said.

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development is working with King County, which has developed a simple spreadsheet to calculate emissions, and the state to develop a consistent approach.

Just trying to measure emissions from a new condo building raises complicated questions, such as whether developers in downtown Seattle should get credit for taking cars off the road that might have otherwise been commuting from Issaquah.

Trying to account for every last molecule of carbon dioxide associated with a building isn't necessarily the point. The main benefit, some argue, may be in showing builders how their choices -- where material comes from, architectural designs -- can affect global warming.
"We do know the first step is gathering the information," Department of Planning and Development spokesman Alan Justad said.

"I think everyone feels like it's time to start, and we'll learn as we go."

P-I reporter Jennifer Langston can be reached at 206-448-8130 or

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Upper Ridge Cottages

The Public Hearing last Thursday Dec 6 went extremely well according to people knowledgeable in these matters. We will have the official decision on Dec 28th from the hearing examiner and we are confident that all of the conditions that were documented by the City of Everett will be mitigated to our satisfaction with the exception of one condition which is still open.

Our plans call for a permeable surface material for the curvy sidewalk in the city right of way and the city wants to use regular non-porous cement. It seems to be a maintenance issue as the city doesn't really have procedures in place for maintaining the porosity. We feel that our condo CC&R's

We are happy to announce that the road out front will remain narrow and landscaping will replace the existing asphalt walkway. We are exceeding the city standard call outs with our Low Impact Development plan and keeping the wetlands intact without disturbing habitat or hydrology is unprecedented, which is how the hearing examiner stated it. One example, 8,000 sq ft of open space is the minimum and we are providing 40,000 sq ft.

There were several speakers in our behalf, notably Craig Young whose passion for the environment came through quite eloquently. Thanks so much Craig. Craig hand delivered a letter from Carolyn Mayer, President of the Sustainable Development Task Force of Snohomish County to Allan Giffen, Director of Planning and Community Development which I introduced into the hearing record. The letter supported our desire to have Upper Ridge Cottages be used by the city as a model for LID (Low Impact Development).

Copies were mailed to Mayor Stephanson as well as all of the Everett City Council. Follow up letters or calls to Allan Giffen, the mayor and city council would be appreciated.

Valarie Steel from Greening Properties Inc was very supportive and welcomed our green community which will feed a demand for the type of homes we are building.

The next step will be submitting our plans for building permits, hopefully in mid-Jan 2008 which is just around the corner.Thanks again for you continuing support. Chuck & Judy Upper Ridge Cottages 425-353-8150

Certification for Green Products

There has been significant work on certifying products for inclusion in LEED buildings and other green projects. The SMART system was just adopted by the USGBC - see above link.

Pervious Parking Lot Stands Up to Torrential Rains

By Christopher Dunagan (Contact)Originally published 12:25 p.m., December 5, 2007Updated 12:25 p.m., December 5, 2007

During the peak of Monday's storm, with water pouring from the sky, no water could be seen running off one parking lot on Auto Center Way.

The parking lot, made of various types of pervious pavement, was installed last summer at the office of the Home Builders Association of Kitsap County.

Rainwater rapidly penetrated through the pavement and into an underlying bed of gravel, said Art Castle, executive director of the Home Builders Association. When the gravel bed nears capacity, an "underdrain" directs the water into the city's storm sewers.

A bioretention cell, or "rain garden," captures all the runoff from the roof of the office. While the rain garden did fill up with water during the storm, it did not overflow, Castle said. Rain gardens are generally designed to contain typical rainfall over a two-day period. "This was a worst-case scenario," he added.

These kinds of projects are called low-impact development, or LID. They're not designed to prevent flooding, Castle said, but they can slow down runoff by storing the water for a period of time.

"Flow is delayed, and that takes off the peaks," Castle said. "Even if there is outfall, the water has been delayed and it gets water-quality treatment along the way."

The same techniques can be used for private homes, where local rules provide major allowances in stormwater design when using pervious paving. Essentially, the first 5,000 square feet of pervious pavement placed over native soil are exempt from stormwater calculations. That can save months of delay and extensive engineering costs, Castle said.

For a series of video clips shot by Castle during the storm, go to

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Runoff Called Top Pollutant in the Sound

Findings prove what many suspected, and may change priorities in cleanup


Runoff from streets, roofs and even forests is the largest source of most of the worst pollutants plaguing Puget Sound, according to a study released Friday. Air pollution is the prime culprit for a few of the toxic chemicals. Oil spills and sewage treatment plants contribute smaller fractions of the waste.

Some of the findings were surprising -- and highlight the need to complete a more thorough analysis, possibly resulting in a refocusing of cleanup priorities.

"We're trying to sort of move away from random acts of kindness to prioritize actions based on the analysis and substance of what we find to be out there," said David Dicks, director of the Puget Sound Partnership, the government agency responsible for the health of the Sound.

The report is the first attempt to chase down and quantify all the sources of pollution that sicken orcas and make fish and shellfish unsafe for human consumption. It cost $135,000, paid for by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Millions of dollars have been spent trying to clean up historical contamination in Puget Sound and to stem ongoing sources. Many hope the investments will increase as the state and Gov. Chris Gregoire try to restore the Sound by 2020.

The report is the first part of a three-phase effort to tally the flow of toxics to the Sound. It comes with the warning that the numbers are preliminary and incomplete.

Findings include:

  • Pollutants including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc, mercury, the banned pesticide DDT and phthalates -- a chemical used in plastics -- came mostly from runoff from urban and non-urban areas. The greatest concentrations came from developed areas.
  • Air pollution is a leading source for toxic flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, created when fuel is burned.
  • Combined sewage overflows that dump untreated or partially treated sewage into the Sound during heavy rainstorms contribute little to the overall pollution, though they cause local toxic hotspots.

    The report was vindicating for Rich Berkowitz, director of Pacific Coast Operations Transportation Institute, a non-profit representing the maritime shipping industry.

    It found that oil spills accounted for only 4 percent of the petroleum pollution in the Sound; runoff from land accounted for nearly all the rest. The runoff -- according to back-of-the-envelope calculations by federal scientists -- could carry the equivalent of about half an Exxon Valdez spill a year in oil and grease.

    "We are winning the battle on preventing oil spills from commercial vessels," Berkowitz said. "We've been losing the battle for far too long on runoff."

    The study carried a different message for Josh Baldi, the Department of Ecology's special assistant for Puget Sound.

    "What that shows is we're being diligent in terms of prevention," Baldi said. "That means we should not rest on that. We need to be as diligent about other types of pollution."

    In recent years, the state's oil spill prevention program has been strengthened. Beginning this fall, vessels transferring oil to large oil facilities must be ringed with floating booms to contain spilled fuel should an accident occur. A 2003 spill during a fuel transfer near Edmonds dumped about 4,800 gallons into the Sound. A catastrophic spill could wipe out the local orca population.

    While runoff has been singled out for years as a serious and growing pollution threat, the study made clear it's the front-runner.

    Runoff picks up pollutants from across the landscape -- oil and grease from vehicles, pesticides applied to landscaping and roofs, pet waste and even naturally occurring -- but toxic -- elements.

    The state has issued stormwater permits requiring city and county governments to reduce the torrent of water that flows untreated into streams and the Sound. Strategies include building ponds to hold the water so it can sink slowly into the ground. Environmentalists prefer "low-impact development" using rain barrels, porous cement and water-absorbing landscaping to absorb the rain where it falls.

    Governments and developers often criticize the permits as too costly to comply with; environmentalists and scientists say they don't do enough -- and Baldi agreed.

    The current permits "are going to be insufficient to tackle this problem," he said, and the study affirms the need to do more.

    The study was a great first step, said Heather Trim of the non-profit People for Puget Sound. But it greatly underestimated the amount of pollution coming from sewage plants, industrial polluters and small, unreported oil spills.

    The analysis also didn't include pollution from ocean water mixing with the Sound and contaminants in marine life and mud.

    The phase two analysis, which will address many of these omissions, will cost $600,000 and is due next summer.

    The Puget Sound Partnership is supposed to complete an action plan for saving the Sound by September.


    Read the report "Control of Toxic Chemicals in Puget Sound" at:

    Read "The Sound of Broken Promises," a six-part Seattle P-I special report that chronicles the long life of Granny, the respected elder in her Northwest orca pod, and examines the weak regulations, spotty enforcement and political foot-dragging that have plagued efforts to clean the Sound:

  • P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or Read her blog on the environment at