Myth-busting the ‘green stormwater infrastructure’ plan

(County map showing where the “green stormwater infrastructure” is proposed for the area feeding the Barton pump station; go here for larger version)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

There was a bit of myth-buster flavor to the first major community meeting since King County’s December announcement that it wants to solve the Barton Pump Station‘s overflow woes with “green stormwater infrastructure” in a 17-block area of Westwood and Sunrise Heights:

No, there won’t be a raingarden in front of every home in the area.

No, the raingardens aren’t expected to fill up and sit stagnant as mosquito-breeding ponds or child-drowning risks.

No, they won’t block you from getting between your street-parked car and your front door.

So – what will they do, and how?

The answers, questions, and backstory came in a well-attended community meeting Wednesday night at Westside School, which is in the project zone. (If you’re short on time – here’s the PowerPoint presentation.)

“Perfect ‘combined-sewer-overflow’ kind of night,” joked consultant Bob Wheeler, looking out the huge windows of the school auditorium, which held an eastward view of dark clouds that had recently dumped sleet/hail on the area, chased by a downpour.

The front end of the meeting was heavy on introductions and background, before getting closer to specifics about the project and a chance for Q/A.

Westside’s head of school Jo Ann Yockey offered the 70-plus-strong crowd a welcome, saying they were pleased to “open this space to the community” in their first year of operation in what had been a shuttered Seattle Public Schools elementary.

Maryann Petrocelli, King County’s outreach leader, introduced herself, noting she is a Westwood resident, though “out of the project area.” She’s the person you can call with questions or problems.

The rest of the team of consultants and county employees – same consultants as the meetings last year, but with different county employees in the mix representing public outreach and project management – started with a primer on CSOs and the timeline of the process to this point, dating back a year and a half to a community meeting in October 2009.

As project manager Mary Wohleb summarized it, if the pump station wasn’t capable of an overflow discharge into Puget Sound, the mix of sewage and stormwater during heavy rain “would be backing up into your house.” The state says overflows have to be limited to an average of one per year; the Barton station is averaging four. The “green stormwater infrastructure approach” was described as an “engineered approach to using natural drainage to capture stormwater” before it gets into the system, then “slowly releasing it” when the storm has passed.

Jeff Lykken from Tetra Tech, whose specialty is the technical side of things, dove further into explaining the combined-sewer system that Seattle and about 700 “older cities around the United States” are completely or partially set up with such systems. In the project area, everything goes into a combined sewer, which means that diverting stormwater will “make it a good target area.” This particular location also is responsible for much of the flow down to the pump station by Fauntleroy ferry dock – 50 percent of the entire “basin” flow goes down Barton, and then Director, to the pump station.

Advantages of this approach, Lykken summarized, are not just that it’s a “more sustainable solution” but also that it can be “constructed in the public right of way” (mostly inbetween the sidewalk and curb lane) and it ultimately means less stormwater going into the treatment system (from here, water is sent all the way to West Point off Magnolia for treatment).

So what exactly goes into the “public right of way”?

John Phillips from King County picked it up from there. Plants and soil – “typically a mix of grasses, native plants, and ornamental plants” – are the key components in “evaporat(ing), captur(ing) and reus(ing) stormwater.” They would be part of “bioretention/bioswales,” but there’s also “permeable pavement” and “roof disconnection” – ending the practice of having roof gutters/downspouts feeding rainwater directly into the combined-sewer system. Another advantage he pitched: This is adaptable to “unknown future weather conditions” – say it gets rainier in the decades ahead, a storage tank might turn out not to have been the right size.

He finally got to the heart of the matter, topics that hadn’t been discussed back when the concept was just theoretical – it’s not final yet, since it’s still in environmental review, but it’s close: The concerns.

Answers were offered:

PARKING EFFECTS? A “minimal reduction” is envisioned, and the county wants to work with each block regarding how they “use” parking. “Curb alignment” will be maintained “where possible, though “curb bulbs with landscape enhancements” might be added in some places where “additional (water) capacity” is needed.

ACCESS BETWEEN STREET AND FRONT DOOR? There will be “crossable zones” from sidewalk to street edge, “steppable zones” next to the curb, durable plants, and visibility.

MAINTENANCE? This is a biggie. While you currently are responsible for maintaining the “planting strip” between sidewalk and street, if you have one, even though it’s city right of way, King County will be responsible for major maintenance on the GSI features – to “maintain flow and storage … (and) longterm function. … These facilities need to last 50 to 100 years.”

LESSONS LEARNED? Wohleb said there were plenty – particularly from the city’s troubled Ballard raingarden project (which even sent a rep to this meeting, to jump in as soon as the topic came up). “That’s why we’re installing 17 groundwater monitoring wells – we need to know what’s going on underground.” They’re also surveying the neighborhood to ask people about areas with known drainage/flooding problems: “What we don’t want to do is make it worse.” They’re also going to install an official rain gauge in the area – the nearest one turns out to be a mile and a half away.

Attendee questions included: “A few of us on our block have improved parking strips – will you help us move the plants we put in?” Answer: “Yes … and if we like the plants, we just may keep them!”

This brought a smile to the face of one man who volunteered that he’s growing potatoes in his planting strip.

The next questioner had more of a statement: “If you take a pig and call them a world-class bovine … what the county wants us to do is store this rainwater in front of our houses because they are unable to effectively remove it from the area, correct?”

Phillips eventually said, “Yes.”

Then came the concern about raingardens holding enough water to be a drowning risk. Wohleb explained that’s another reason for installing groundwater wells “to determine seasonable groundwater level and infiltration rates.” If they find an area has levels/rates too high for a raingarden to be useful, that area won’t get one. Having two or three days of standing water after a storm is not acceptable, she said. (It was also pointed out that after the initial planting/growing phase, the areas will be full of plants, not open pools even if there is plenty of water.)

What kind of wildlife would the bioswales attract? someone wondered, particularly worried about mosquitoes and rats. (Eventually a loud chorus of “Raccoons!” arose from other attendees; “possums!” others added.)

Mosquitoes need 7 to 12 days in standing water, it was pointed out.

How about basements – what if you already struggle to keep your basement dry, is this putting it at risk of flooding?

Wohleb reiterated that they want to hear about existing problems like that: “We don’t want to site a bioswale in an area with existing problems.”

Another question: Would water meters have to be relocated? Phillips said they already have mapped water meters and pipes, and they either will avoid those spots for building raingardens, or work around them: “It’s too expensive to relocate water meters.”

WHAT’S NEXT: A community survey is open till May 7 – take it here. An environmental report is expected in late April, with a comment period in May. Field work and design are continuing. Outreach efforts are to include mailings, website updates, and more meetings. The final facility plan is supposed to be approved by July 1 this year, with the permitting process under way fall 2011-fall 2012, the preliminary design from this fall through early next year, final design done next year (with a conceptual design done by early March), then construction 2013-2015. Some job openings are posted right now – hydrologists, geologists, landscape-design professionals.

MORE INFORMATION: The main page for county information on the project is here.

19 Replies to "Myth-busting the 'green stormwater infrastructure' plan"

  • Nulu April 8, 2011 (9:55 am)

    I applaud WSB’s Tracy for her excellent reporting on this meeting.
    The who, what, when and where are well covered, although I dispute the ’70-plus-strong’
    as being more like twice as many by my count.

    I do have criticism of the ‘myth-busting’ label attached to the headline and as laid out (somewhat editorially) in this piece.

    Most evident in this meeting was the absence of audience outrage, interruptions, shout-downs and people like ‘Ducky’ rushing the stage so prevalant in the ‘down the hill meetings’ of the Fauntleroy and Lohman Beach organizations. Nary a representative from these victorious groups revealed themselves or raised a yelp as they had gotten what they wanted.
    Noticeably absent from this meeting was any voice of the Westwood/Heights community through its (if there are any) organized groups.

    No mention was made to the past history and controversy, resolved when the down hill neighborhoods foisted the disruption on their uphill neighbors.

    The government agency (King County with Seattle back up) came equipped for bear after the free-for-alls that erupted in past meetings.

    King County bureaucrats’ brilliantly executed strategy was successful in avoiding answering any hard questions. They employed tactics such as delay, running down the clock, multiple speaker hand-offs (to “answer your question”) and running around issues with anectdotes. By announcing and enforcing a schedule that placed the question period at the end of the meeting, and then making their presentations redundant and run long, they were able to essentially eliminate the all too dangerous questions from the floor. Instead they insisted that the meeting end, the group ‘break-up’ spread out and individually ask their questions. This strategy effective eliminated any serious open meeting discussion.

    In their opening King County absolutley skimmed over the history of how they got here and the fact that this was the first meeting that most of these people had attended. They claimed that at a prior meeting in Fauntleroy Hall (for Faunleroy Community Association) that “65 people from the basin” had agreed to this proposal and skipped over the early stages of the process that their charts showed, perhaps because those affected were not involved.

    The bureaucrats were happy to confuse the audience with interchanges of what basin they were talking about to whatever suited their purposes, such as when they stated that nearly 50% of the overflow came down the Barton drain. They implied that this water was from from the 17 block area but when pressed by me admitted that the 17 block area is less than 1/3rd of the Barton Basin. At other times they added or subtracted the Murray Basin from their arguments as needed. They did a quick and great job of obfuscation and never looked back.

    ‘Myth-busting’ is a strange headline.

    The myths? Was there ever a ‘myth’ that,” the raingardens (are) expected to fill up and sit stagnant as mosquito-breeding ponds or child-drowning risks?” No, of course not.
    Did they bust the claimed myth? No.
    They simply replied that they do not expect that to happen while acknowledging these problems have occurred before.
    The Seattle rep on hand was quick to jump in and acknowledge the problem and Seattle’s attempts at a fix, but did not claim an accomplished fix or even how that would be done. Although she did claim that these problems would not occur here! No one was able to ask her if she had expected the Ballard drainage problems as the claimed ‘myth’ had predicted.

    Did they dispute the fact that children can die in an inch of water that has been there ten minutes? No.

    Did they dispute that items littered into the anticipated fast draining ditches would not breed mosquitoes? No.

    Did they dispute that the plant coverage could not
    become a wildlife refuge populated by vermin? No.
    How could they dispute this when all over the city we are setting aside wildlife rufuges? Are the animals supposed to know which is which for their foraging and dens?

    ‘Myth’ – the rain gardens will “block you from getting between your street-parked car and your front door.” This issue was neatly sidestepped with pretty photos of a High Point access crossing.
    No official said that individuals will not be blocked from getting between your street-parked car and your front door,” only that they wiil try to address access issues. It is obvious that people will lose access with just a few paths to cross the trench as opposed to anywhere along the current planting strip.
    If residents were not blocked to some extent, there would be no room for the raingardens.

    Residents will also lose street parking according to King County but no figures were released.

    Myth – “No, there won’t be a raingarden in front of every home in the area.”
    Correct, not every home has planting strips that can accomodate the ditches due to location near intersections, width of strip and anticipated infiltration.
    But the county never addressed the break even point, i.e. the number of residences that need to be used to reach the reduction in drainage goals.
    The now known goegraphical limitations are added to the new information from 17 monitor wells that may reduce drainage trench options and the homeowners with existing ground water issues opting out may approach the break even point. Since the homeonwers had not yet been polled for existing groundwater problems and the 17 monitoring wells are not yet in place, it is difficult to support the county’s claims.

    King County’s claims of maintaining the trenches also deserve some skepticism. Did they mention any legal documents that set out these promises. As a builder I am required to notarize and Record with King County covenants with such agreements.
    For those still guillible on the maintenance issue, imagine years ahead (they said 100 years) when the County is broke and the pump stations need maintenance and repair as well as the trenches’ maintenance has fallen off but the trenches still ‘work’, (they just look overgrown and unkempt), where do you think the money will go?
    Without legal documents with guarantees, the county will be off the hook and all of the bureaucrats that made these guarantees will be long gone.

    The one person who attempted to raise an issue (during the presentation) about what happens if his basement becomes flooded was promised an answer in the q&a period, which was abbreviated due to the presentation running long. When the answer did not come, his neighbor again posed the question. The ‘answer; was that the county does not anticipate this happening, there will be monitor wells, and people with known groundwater problems need to express them to the county. Nobody said the county would provide a signed, notarized and recorded covenant protecting individual property owners. If and when problems arise who besides the homeowners will take responsibility?

    • WSB April 8, 2011 (11:23 am)

      I am slamming on two stories and have only had time to skim Nulu’s comment but the one fact that jumped out at me that I wanted to check – because I take pretty good crowd counts – I have checked. According to Maryann Petrocelli, there are 77 names on the sign-in sheet from the Wednesday meeting. – TR

      • WSB April 8, 2011 (6:25 pm)

        Sorry, Nulu, on first read your line looked to me like you thought I was counting twice as many as you believed were there, instead of the other way around. And yeah, I turned around from my front row seat to do row counts, twice, which is where I came up with “at least 70,” and I am well aware some don’t sign in. Crowd counting is pretty much an unwinnable game so picking a solid number and going with “at least” or “more than,” if you’re confident of the base number, tends to be workable, on this level, anyway … nothing like watching the squabbles at the national level between “they had 100,000 protesters!” “no, they had 1 million protesters!” …

  • desertdweller April 8, 2011 (10:58 am)

    @Nulu: Do you live in Westwood? What’s your stake in all this?

  • Milo April 8, 2011 (11:02 am)

    Quite simply, the problem is that during big rain storms, raw sewage pours into Puget Sound- that’s bad. That’s very bad. I think it sounds like a very interesting and creative solution to capture the water into little landscaped gardens where it will percolate into the ground in 24 hours.

    Nulu, I was also at the meeting and what you failed to point out in your long rant was the display board of the neighborhood with the pins. People in the neighborhood could select one of the following colored pins: green meant that they liked the project, blue meant that they weren’t sure or wanted more information and red meant that they didn’t like the project. The majority of the pins were blue with a fair number of green and there were only 4-5 red pins total. It was extremely clear that the majority, were interested in learning more or liked the project.

  • Nulu April 8, 2011 (11:38 am)

    Correct to Milo.

    The County did an absolutely brilliant job of selling something to the neighborhood that the neighbors did not realize they had already bought.

    My post is not a rant but a dissection of the King’s Wardrobe. Please feel free to dispute my statements with your take on the facts presented.

    To desertdweller, I do not live in Westwood or Morningside Heights. I do live in the Barton Basin. I have attended several of the past meetings on the overflow that were not in my neighborhood, and experienced the furry of the NIMBY attitudes of those closer to the water.
    I have a history of posting on this subject. My home, built in the late fifties, is one of the thousands that combine stormwater with our home’s sewage and then into the sanitary sewer even though a storm drain exists in the street.
    I feel that a few homeowners are being unfairly saddled with the mess created by the masses, including me.

  • KCWTD April 8, 2011 (11:46 am)

    Just a note to dispel some confusion. WTD is carefully monitoring groundwater conditions in the area using the 17 goundwatering wells that were installed back in March.

    We’re also out in the field talking to neighbors and trying to learn more about the project area, and you can also help us by taking our survey:

  • Nulu April 8, 2011 (12:02 pm)

    Thanks for the clarification.
    But, what did you mean by, “back in March?”
    Is that march of 2007 or March of 8 days ago and after our rainy season has ended?
    If it is 8 days ago March, you have acted consistent to the meeting’s obfuscations and confirmed my concerns in adding to the confusion.
    And since you are available and monitoring WSB, would you care to comment on the issues I raised?
    As I said, I welcome factual corrections.

  • Ken April 8, 2011 (1:28 pm)

    If you want to see a working bioswale system come to highpoint and especially the permeable pavement experiment at 32nd between Juneau and Raymond.

    I never see standing water no matter how hard it rains. The problem with permeable pavement is only evident when it snows. It is the last to melt and salt just bores holes in the snow/ice and drains away without effecting the snowpack.

  • furor scribendi April 8, 2011 (2:33 pm)

    Tracy, kudos for the great coverage and story. I hope there will be a lively debate on this issue and look forward to it! What’s certain is the agencies involved have a mandate that must get results with an ever decreasing budget, and neighbors must do their due-diligence on what’s being proposed. If these interests dovetail, great. If not…. well, that’s for another blog post.

    On attendance, there may have been 77 signatures on the sign-in sheet, but I counted 168 people when I arrived at 7pm, after subtracting out the presenters and some planning interns.

  • kgdlg April 8, 2011 (4:13 pm)

    TR, thanks again for some great coverage here. It was a good meeting and great to see everyone – pro and against – treated respectfully by all giving presentations. I felt that questions were answered pointedly and well. There was a good Q+A at the end and then staff stayed as long as anyone wanted to chat one on one. They also took questions here and there through the technical portion of the night (which was a bit long, but these project ARE very detailed). I also listened to a number of people talk one on one about flooding concerns after the meeting. In general, I found these bureaucrats pretty attentive. And I have been attending these meetings for the last two years.

  • nulu April 8, 2011 (5:39 pm)

    Ken, the High Point working bio-swale system and experimental permeable street are indeed impressive. It is complete and beautifully realized.

    By having the unique opportunity of total design of the New High Point community, the High Point system is fully integrated. I do not believe the proposed Westwood/Heights areas can achieve anything remotely similar in terms of integration. The High Point permeable street is several feet thicker or deeper than all other streets. And I did not hear anything last night about permeable streets.
    I heard during Nichols reign, the usual Seattle sand was applied during a snow event and this resulted in the pores in the permeable concrete getting clogged which resulted in some unusual street cleaning with vacuums. So permeable streets must have some unexpected issues in the snow.

    Maybe kgdlg can help me with some of those questions that were answered ‘pointedly and well,’ especially the one with the resident concerned about his basement? Or, any of the other questions that I raise as it seems that ‘KCWTD’ is not available.

    ‘desertdweller’ might also wonder what kgdlg’s stake is, as I believe she is another one outside of the Westwood/Heights area who has also attended meetings in the past.

    If WSB is going by the sign-in list for attendance numbers, they should note that. Some families and couples sign in as one and others like myself did not sign in at all.
    IF Tracy turned around from her front row seat, it should have been obvious. I counted well over 100 before stopping. The crowd was large. One of the bureaucrats was snapping photos that show the largeness of the crowd.

    Because the County did such an impressive sales presentation in such a controlled manner, I agree with ‘furor scribendi’ who says “neighbors must do their due-diligence on what’s being proposed.”

  • BB April 9, 2011 (8:10 am)


    In no way did the Fauntleroy Community foist this solution on your neighborhood. We were prepared for a storage tank (CSO) to be installed behind Fauntleroy Hall. It was a complete surprise to me when they announced the rain garden solution.

  • dsa April 9, 2011 (5:04 pm)

    I got in late on this. I wish they would concentrate on enforcing separating rooftop downspouts from sanitary sewers instead of ramrodding this.

  • Nulu April 9, 2011 (6:35 pm)

    Great point ‘dsa.’

    I wonder why every house in the basin should not be required or encouraged to do this?
    It might prove problematic for houses below street level, but it would make a difference if everyone possible separated their downspout/stormwater.

  • Nulu April 10, 2011 (9:28 pm)

    Yours is pure revisionist history as proven by the county, – “Concerns about potential impacts to cultural resources, vegetation, and green space adjacent to the proposed storage alternative for Upper Fauntleroy Way SW Support for locating an underground storage facility at the former Fauntleroy School site, and also concerns about impacts of this alternative on businesses and nearby areas
    Concerns about the proposed Lincoln Park alternative due to potential construction impacts on traffic, public recreation access, vegetation and wildlife.” KCWTD

    It seems that Fauntleroy had problems with all solutions but the one that so pleasantly surprised you.

  • nulu April 11, 2011 (9:43 am)

    Thanks WSB.
    Correct the article by FCA gives a soft nod, ‘most promise,’ to the schoolhouse proposal.
    But if you read the posts in response to FCA’s ‘non formal position,’ you will see a lively dispute between the two powerful groups, (Fauntleroy vs. Lohman, Barton Basin vs. Murray Basin).
    Basically, Fauntleroy was leveraging the schoolhouse site with attempts for other funding improvements to the site, while Lohman was charging Fauntleroy with opting for undersized storage with area improvements all the while continuing to send the overflow to Lohman.

    The posts are quite entertaining.

    The counties surprise solution brought an end to these powerful group’s accusations of each other.

    It is the county’s statement, “Fauntleroy School site, and also concerns about impacts of this alternative on businesses and nearby areas,” not mine that seems to be in dispute.

  • Westwood/Sunrise resident April 28, 2011 (8:35 pm)

    I was at this meeting, and the county did a fabulous job of skipping over the “Where does the water go” question, as they bullet pointed in slide number 23 (see the subsequent slides–not a mention, but some pretty pictures of plans!)

    Good sales pitch by the county–lots of county employees there, including the sign-in taskmaster, so I will assume with her pestering, most people did sign in, although attendance seemed upward of 100 people.

    So, my question is…where does the water go?
    The county also promised to maintenance the improved parking strips–but I am skeptical of a county with major budget woes will actually keep up with maintenance and address possible issues that may (will?) arise with this project.

    And, am I the only one that thinks the parking strips…gentrified? It’s very Redmond Ridge.

    I also agree with the separate roof downspouts, even though I live below street level–there should be a solution for us. Mine used to be connected to *some* sort of sewer/storm drain ages ago before I was the owner, but now I trying to come up with my own solutions for my selfish reasons of keep water away from my foundation. This is my project for the summer. Any suggestions are welcome!

Sorry, comment time is over.