(Quick 360-degree look at Lowman Beach Park this morning, from its NW corner, atop the seawall)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
It seems like a no-win situation: To keep millions of gallons of wastewater from spilling into Puget Sound every year, a beloved park on its shore might have to be compromised, perhaps even sacrificed.
But the neighbors and fans of Lowman Beach Park (map) who crowded into the Morgan Community Association‘s quarterly meeting Wednesday night insisted they could turn the search for a Combined Sewer Overflow solution from no-win to win-win – provided they are brought more deeply into the process, getting detailed data they can use to independently evaluate the possibilities, then suggesting and supporting an acceptable alternative.
But is it too late? With the county reiterating it’s “on a track” to choose its preferred alternative this summer, Wednesday night’s Morgan discussion was the last scheduled public meeting; it wasn’t even scheduled until after the proposed alternatives received an at-times emotional reception last month (here’s our story). Now, residents are asking the county to schedule more, and asked for the creation of a “stakeholders’ group.”
More on what they said, what they heard, and what happens next, ahead:
This is all happening because, in an average year, five million gallons of CSO wastewater goes into Puget Sound every year from the county-operated Murray Pump Station at Lowman, usually during heavy rains, The “combined” system – not considered an optimal system, but that’s what’s in place in parts of the city – mixes rain water with other wastewater, including sewage, so that means overflows include raw sewage going into the Sound. The state has ordered a drastic cutback in that pollution, limiting it to one million gallons a year at Murray.
Murray is not the only pump station involved in this process – Barton, on the other side of Lincoln Park by the Fauntleroy ferry terminal, is one of three others. Both those sites were the subject of March meetings at Southwest Community Center at which a team of county staffers and consultants discussed the three respective alternatives they had chosen for CSO control (here again is our March Murray report; here’s our March Barton report) and said they had to settle on one this summer, so they needed comments within a few weeks.
(WSB photo from 10/8/2009 Murray CSO open house at The Hall at Fauntleroy)
Before those meetings, the process in general was discussed at two lightly attended open houses in West Seattle last October (we covered both – here’s our Murray report from that round, and our Barton report).
This week, the county’s presentation (see the slide deck here) began with a condensed version of the background information presented at the March meeting – explaining what Combined Sewer Overflows are, why the county is required to take steps to reduce them, and what types of methods they can use to make that reduction happen. There was some crowd disagreement over whether the background briefing was required at all, but when county reps asked who wanted it, enough hands went up that they went ahead.
The presentation included a few changes from the one shown at the March meeting (see it here), including one slide including the flow that the Murray pump station gets from the Barton station – by the Fauntleroy ferry terminal – on the other side of Lincoln Park, and another (above) showing photos a similar type of – but not similarly sized – county project (at North Creek in Bothell).
But the three alternatives the county says it’s considering are the same – linked from this page – three versions of storage totaling a million gallons:
STORAGE UNDER TWO STREETS:
*Above (these visuals are from the slide deck, not the explanatory county webpages), the one with big pipes underneath sections of Beach Drive (900 feet long) and SW Murray (250 feet long) – explained here
STORAGE UNDER RESIDENTIAL LAND AND A STREET:
*Above, the one that would force residents out of several homes/apartments across from Lowman Beach Park so an underground tank could be placed (along with some storage pipe under Beach Drive) – explained here
STORAGE UNDER LOWMAN BEACH PARK:
*Third and final, above, the most unpopular one – digging up much of Lowman Beach Park, including its century-old sycamores and water-view tennis court, for a 170 x 85 x 20 underground storage tank, along with an above-ground building along its north side for electrical and odor-control equipment – explained here
Wednesday night, emotion and determination ran high, with declarations like this one from Kate: “This is the most beautiful, tiny, tiny little park that you want to destroy,” and went on to list the many different ways that people use it every day, from kayak launching to dog walking. “You cannot destroy the park!” she insisted, concluding that Lowman would be lost “over my dead body.”
Then there were the calls for a more open public process, rather than closing it with this meeting and another week or so of commenting, then announcing a preferred alternative this summer.
From Patrick Gordon (who came up to county community-relations liaison Martha Tuttle after the meeting and declared it to be the “worst public process” he had ever seen): “You’ve been working on this since 2007, then you show up (in 2010) and say we have two weeks to comment? You have an opportunity here to engage an amazing community that cares about the Sound … in a process we could all be proud of.” He went on to suggest a model: The Alaskan Way Viaduct stakeholders’ advisory committees, in which he and Fauntleroy Community Association board member Vlad Oustimovitch – who was also at Wednesday’s meeting – have both participated.
Gordon recounted that at one point, those interested in the AWV’s future were told an elevated structure was the only option – “then the city, county and state put together a stakeholders group and we sat down with them. We came up with a solution beyond what anybody said we could have thought of.” During his comments Wednesday night, he also shared a poem from his 11-year-old daughter, writing of Lowman Beach Park as “a place of comfort, a place of joy.”
That theme resounded over and over again, as did the theme of proposing that park neighbors and users could help solve the problem. Marine-mammal advocate and area resident Donna Sandstrom (founder of The Whale Trail) told the county reps, “This isn’t your problem, this is OUR problem. I hope we can (solve the problem quickly) … that park is a gem.”
A big public forum could make big progress, suggested Jennifer: “We need you to get a HUGE hall” for a major community meeting to talk about the challenge. “We have engineers … We are going to stand up as a community and say that locating an above-ground facility at Lowman Beach is not an option.”
So what IS an option, for worried neighbors? Dr. Ron Sterling, who lives next to the park, reiterated what he had said at the March meeting – that he believes the county’s proposals for the Barton CSO-control facility (linked here) are too small, and that he thinks a storage facility could be built underground at Lincoln Park, to serve both. (The county has said there are too many “geotechnical challenges” for that to work, including that it would have to be a “deep-bore tunnel” because of the elevation change between the beachfront pump stations and the blufftop land that comprises most of Lincoln Park, up to 160′ in elevation.)
Dr. Sterling also scolded the county team for too little “public process,” too late: “If you had coordinated with the community from the start, we would have the political will for you to do the right thing.” (He has written his take on the meeting in two posts at the advocacy website he has set up for the CSO situation, soundangels.org.)
What the “right thing” might be, residents say they need more information to help determine.
For example: The county said it had ruled out the possibility of disconnecting a significant portion of the 1,000-acre “basin” from the stormwater system – a Green Stormwater Infrastructure which conversely is one of the three final options being considered for Barton CSO control – because they believe it wouldn’t remove enough of the potential flow. Sandstrom wondered if the county was underestimating local residents, offering her belief that a sizable majority of residents could be “rallied” to deal with the stormwater in a “green” way. (County reps and consultants said that even if 50 percent of the homes – which they believe would be the highest likely participation rate – joined in, that still only would reduce the flow by 13 percent.)
Several of those in attendance repeated that they want to see more of the data the county used before it settled on the three options it’s officially considering. Whether and how they’ll get it, was not clear: At one point, when asked how residents could access detailed data, project manager Shahrzad Namini suggested they could file a public-disclosure request. Some attendees were audibly and visibly aghast at the suggestion that the requested data would not be freely provided. The facilitator the county brought in to run the meeting, Tammy Kellogg, tried to intervene and clarify the request, but then segued into one of several expressions of concern about the time: “My job is to get you out of here before the lights go out,” to which one audience member retorted loudly, “No, it’s not, it’s to inform us.”
Since Lowman Beach is a Seattle city park, some are looking to city leaders to protect it from what they see as its potential destruction. At the March meeting, a Parks representative in attendance suggested that if the Lowman underground option was chosen, maybe the park’s destiny was to be just a utility site; that prompted cries of “This park is not a throwaway park!” Wednesday night, when the question arose about what would happen if the city had to give up park property for this kind of use, City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen – a West Seattle resident who chaired the council’s Parks Committee until this year – rose to say that city law requires the replacement of any relinquished parkland.
No one appeared to be in a tradeoff mood. Yet the county stressed that even if the underground tank at Lowman wasn’t the eventual choice, the Lowman park will be affected one way or another – some kind of “staging” would happen there for any and every option, they explained, since there’s no place else to “stage” construction equipment in the area. And they noted that this project, whatever is chosen, will be combined with a long-planned upgrade of the Murray pump station itself.
The real problem, one attendee suggested, is that any option chosen now may be outdated in the future unless the “upstream problem” is addressed; another said that planning for it to handle a “100-year event” may not be enough; yet another suggestion was to look at separating the combined sewer system that is the root of the problem, and combining that with sustainable stormwater handling might become the answer.
An hour and a half into the discussion, half an hour longer than the MoCA meeting was supposed to run, it began to ebb, but the question was pressed: How soon will there be an answer as to whether more meetings can be held? Project manager Namini said she didn’t know. Community-relations rep Tuttle said, “There’s more discussion back at the office that’s going to take place.” After the meeting, we asked her who would ultimately make the decision on the request to extend the public process; she listed the chain of command – Namini reports to Wastewater Division Head Christie True, who in turn reports to county Department of Natural Resources and Parks interim director Bob Burns, who in turn reports to County Executive Constantine.
Those determined to protect Lowman Beach Park said they’ll go straight to the top themselves: “If you’re not listening to us, we will go other places to be heard.” Letters already have been sent to Constantine; petitions (described on the Sound Angels advocacy site) remain in circulation – including the hard-copy one whose creator Jim Coombes told the meeting it’s past 500 names – while he originally was hoping for perhaps 50 – and an online petition (here) as well.
Though his neighborhood is dealing with the Barton station situation, not the one at Murray, Fauntleroy Community Association president Bruce Butterfield was on hand Wednesday night and offered a summary late in the meeting: “It’s frustrating for a lot of people because we don’t know what the solutions are, but it’s wonderful to see the passions.”
Until and unless those passions sway the county to add more public discussions to its selection process, official feedback options are now down to these:
Additional feedback links:
*The Sound Angels site links to city, county and state leaders in its right sidebar
According to the county’s current timeline, an environmental-review process – which would include additional public-feedback opportunities – will be triggered by the choice of a preferred alternative this summer, and a “draft facilities plan” is due to the state by the end of the year.