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.
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."
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."