As raingardens approach reality, trepidation grows on a Sunrise Heights block

(7900 block of 30th SW)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Tonight, Sunrise Heights/Westwood residents are expected to find out if the county thinks the planting strips in front of their homes are the best prospective sites for raingardens to reduce sewer overflows miles away.

The plan has been two-plus years in the making, as the county’s preferred solution to the problem of Puget Sound overflows from the Barton Pump Station near the Fauntleroy ferry dock – but only now is it becoming less abstract, more real, as final decisions get closer. And that is worrying the people who live in the 7900 block of 30th SW, who have asked County Executive Dow Constantine to stop the project.

After the county announced two meetings for tonight and Saturday morning, resident Sabrina Urquhart sent a “media advisory” to make sure the meetings would be covered.

We asked if she and her neighbors would be willing to talk in advance about their concerns. So a small group gathered in her living room Monday evening – joining Sabrina were neighbors Heather, Jim, and Kevin.

In addition to the public meetings that have been held about the project, this block has had two private meetings with county reps, they say – in May of last year, and again this month. They say they’re worried that the county is proceeding with the plan despite the discovery that their soil has much in common with the soil in the Ballard area where a city “green stormwater infrastructure project” went infamously wrong. In their letter to Constantine, the neighbors write:

• Managers for the project found the same impervious soils in West Seattle as in Ballard’s failed rain gardens. They plan to address this with under drains and deep wells — but have no proof that doing so will work — and that it won’t create new issues underground. Our city streets already have problems with storm drains clogging from debris running down the street. This demonstrates the proposed design will not work and drains will clog. No matter what yellow or red flags the team encounters, they continue to railroad the Barton project through — with no guarantees that their plans will succeed.

Sabrina pointed us to a website with Ballard photos that the neighbors fear could be the shape of things to come, though they say the county has assured them this will be different. Those assurances also were voiced at a public meeting one year ago – where a city rep was even in attendance to field questions about the Ballard woes. The county said its advance testing and exploring – which we’ve covered along the way – would give them information that wasn’t obtained in advance of the city’s Ballard project. It’s been more than a year since the testing has brought scenes like this to area neighborhoods:

(WSB photo from March 2011)
The research also has included surveying residents to discover more signs of drainage trouble – asking who has trouble with water in their basements, for example. And today – in advance of tonight’s meeting – the county has updated its website to add a page of information about what the testing revealed; it mentions the low-drainage soil type, but says a lower layer should help with drainage.

Sabrina and her neighbors say the drainage challenges apply to their block and in their view should have ruled them out. But they say they have been told that the “infrastructure” could include a drainage system that would channel the water from raingardens/swales to a holding zone somewhere nearby – and they worry what it would take to dig the holes for those pipes. From their letter to the county executive:

• Managers for the project initially said they would not place the bioswales onto properties already experiencing water issues—but now plan to do so. They cannot guarantee that existing water drainage problems (flooded basements, standing water in water meters in planting strips, etc.) won’t worsen due to the project. Instead, we’re being asked to retain more water adjacent to our properties.

Another issue for the neighbors: The county, as it noted very early in the process, has not done this before. This would be a first. Again, from their letter:

• Managers for the project could not cite a single example of where the proposed design is installed and working. Pieces and parts are being pulled together from other projects, but as a whole, the proposed Barton project design has not been tested. This would be a very costly and risky experiment — of citizens’ lives and tax dollars.

• Project Managers point to other “rain garden” examples (e.g. High Point) that do not match our neighborhood. High Point was built from scratch with permeable sidewalks, a retention pond, etc. The Barton project would be a retrofit in an old, established neighborhood. The only previous — and disastrous — example we have of this is Ballard.

They also are concerned about children falling into standing water, pointing out that their neighborhood is near playgrounds and schools.

Several neighborhood representatives plan to be at tonight’s meeting and Saturday’s meeting (the county says the material to be presented at each is identical) to make sure their concerns are voiced. And they wanted to reiterate, they are not opposed to the sustainability goals of this project – but it seems to them like an experiment that may well not yield the results it’s supposed to, and will instead carry a high cost.

What’s next? We’ll find out starting at 6:30 pm at Westside School (7740 34th SW) tonight.

22 Replies to "As raingardens approach reality, trepidation grows on a Sunrise Heights block"

  • Brian M. March 28, 2012 (5:20 pm)

    I love the eco-friendly term “raingarden”. These look like mini retention ponds, and, in my opinion, look very unsightly!

  • JayDee March 28, 2012 (7:19 pm)

    Part of the reason they didn’t work in South Ballard was the native soils were low permeability. In West Seattle, the areas with good drainage are on-top of what is called Advance Outwash — sands and gravels deposited ahead of the melting glacier. The areas with bad drainage in yards or rain gardens are on-top of the Vashon Till which is finer clays with gravel plated out on-top (above) the Advance outwash. So at the meeting ask if the gardens are over the till and if so, how thick the layer is and how the design will infiltrate to the higher permeability Advance outwash deposits. It will make them squirm at least.

  • dahd March 28, 2012 (7:54 pm)

    Why not, I thought – I’ve seen some beautiful raingardens. Then I looked at the pictures of the ones in Ballard – yuck! I get the resistance, wouldn’t want these in front of my house. What a dangerous eysore!

  • cjboffoli March 28, 2012 (8:06 pm)

    The swales that have been in use for years – in High Point and along 26th Ave SW – aren’t unsightly at all. In fact, they’re very attractive and look nothing like what I would call a retention pond. More importantly they are very effective at filtering and slowing the flow of water laden with oil, auto chemicals, heavy metals and animal feces into the Longfellow Creek watershed.

    • WSB March 28, 2012 (8:47 pm)

      Just back from the meeting at Westside and will have a followup. The project manager stood before the 70-or-so in attendance and tried to overtly reassure them that it will NOT be Ballard, the sequel. – TR

  • B-Check March 28, 2012 (9:41 pm)

    I am a bit biased, since I work in the environmental field and a proponent of Green Infrastucture (solutions that mimic natural drainage) and I also helped dig/plant the rain garden at California and Juneau. I personally would welcome a bio-swale rain garden along the street in front of my home – there are currently standard storm drains that fail (ie the street floods) every time there is a large rain event.

    Also, there are hundreds and thousands of successful functioning rain gardens throughout the nation that were retrofitted into existing neighborhoods, many of which are here in our region (through out Washington and especially down in Portland). The key is thorough testing/assessment, proper site design, and maintenance – so it is good for residents to stay involved and express their concerns to ensure the design works for their particular block. I mainly wanted to indicate that this “technology” has been implemented and an effective solution in a multitude of locations/sites, despite what some of the negative media hype might suggest.

  • Applles and Oranges March 28, 2012 (9:46 pm)

    Christopher, the swales you show in HighPoint do look nice from your photo. Although they have been around for a few years, these systems are new to Seattle and problematic. It is the hidden infrastructure of the whole system that allows High Point its relative success.
    In big storm events, all of these swales have overflow pipes that directly drain excess water into the storm drain system, heavy metals, feces and carcinogens included. Also, you seem to have forgotten the huge drainage pond at High Point, which also has overflow into storm drains.
    The long term results of adding all of these hundreds of millions of gallons of runoff into the Longfellow Basin is unknown, but it won’t be similar to pre-settlement forested areas it once was. Will we need paddles on Delridge?
    Of note, many people don’t realize that the proposed swales will not be connected to downspouts of residents.

  • Brian M. March 28, 2012 (10:29 pm)

    CJ … there are no doubts that the theory of bioswales is great. Their execution, at least in Ballard and parts of High Point, have failed. Not sure what the best solution would be, although I would imagine a larger retention pond (that High Point *also* has) is a start.

  • fishgirl March 29, 2012 (8:17 am)

    Why is no one talking about the very attractive and successful rain garden approach used in the SEA streets project on 2nd Ave NW between 117th and 120th? This project was a retrofit for existing homes. I used to commute through there and regularly chose 2nd Ave to bike down because it was so lovely.

    I would welcome a project like this on my street, even though it would mean losing my street-side vegetable gardens, because runoff is a major threat to our streams and to the Sound. Runoff must be dealt with and we will all have to be part of growing into the solutions.

    I plan to attend the meeting to learn more about the issues at this particular site and the solutions proposed.

  • Amber March 29, 2012 (8:56 am)

    What about the two very successful and popular projects in the Piper’s Creek watershed? Known as “SEA Streets”, for Street Edge Alternatives, they function very well, and I would heartily welcome such a lovely and practical installation in my neighborhood.

  • The Farm March 29, 2012 (9:27 am)

    In looking at the pictures of Ballard…I just wondered where is the “garden” in rain garden? I only saw mosquito birthing pools. Rain garden sounds so romantic but doesn’t look it!

  • Gene March 29, 2012 (10:42 am)

    I continue to be perplexed by the people who are concerned for their children because of “danger” of short term standing water. I’d be much much more concerned by the road, with the multi-ton vehicles driving by, right next to them. If anything, the bioswales could be designed for “street calming”, making the affected areas safer, no?

    Also, the Ballard project was a rushed SPU (not County) project where they have (hopefully) learned quite a few lessons. As other have noted, there are plenty of other successful projects that can be looked as well – including SEA Streets which was also a retrofit.

    • WSB March 29, 2012 (10:53 am)

      As my version of last night’s meeting is still a few hours away – the county’s belief is that the “underdrains” they’re planning to use will minimize standing water, unless there is a huge storm event, and even then, they have some overflow plans. – TR

  • WSratsinacage March 29, 2012 (11:12 am)

    As long as the vegetation does not rise above the heights established for the gardens that are allowed in parking strips.. I would just be concerned about visibility issues on neighborhood streets. There have already been accidents in the Admiral neighborhood because people had 6 foot + sunflowers etc which blocked visibility at intersections.

  • A J R March 29, 2012 (12:37 pm)

    Thank goodness I do not have a sizeable parking strip in front of my house!

  • kgdlg March 29, 2012 (1:16 pm)

    @Brian, is there evidence that execution has “failed” at High Point? I believe they are the best example of successful swales. There is absolutely no evidence that there will be a standing water risk here to children, drowning or from insects. I would ask, has there ever been an incident at High Point involving a child getting hurt in one of these? And, as far as mosquitos, A) we really don’t have them here except for two weeks in the summer, and B) during that time, the swales will be dry in the summer heat.

  • ILoveWestSeattle March 29, 2012 (1:26 pm)

    The pix of the Ballard “raingardens” show how hideously these things can go if not properly planned and executed.
    If I lived in the Ballard neighborhood(s) where these eyesores exist, I would be livid.
    Surely something can be done to improve/correct the Ballard travesty???

  • jmk March 29, 2012 (2:43 pm)

    West Seattle–we’re over here in Ballard and watching the ones they “fixed” (on 28th st). They may look like they’re working, but they are not doing any good!!!!! Underground vaults are just filling up and doing the same thing a lawn would do. Watch out!!!!!!

  • Krystal March 29, 2012 (10:08 pm)

    Good point on the downspout issues. The Ballard project provided credits toward cisterns and rain catching on resident properties, this project does not–but nobody will answer why (yes, I have asked several times). If storm water is such an issue to the overflow down at the ferry terminal, addressing street runoff is only part of the problem. We need a better solution for our downspouts.

    Very happy my property is not a finalist for a “cell”, I don’t trust this project.

  • Brian M. March 30, 2012 (7:40 am)

    @kgdlg: I made absolutely no mention about children and drowning. I’m not exactly sure where you made that “leap”. The failure comes in the form of flooding on some of our strips (the video link that I provided above is 1 of at least 3 examples that I know of). I can assure you that this does not match the “beauty” that you see further down the road. We also have the benefit of a pond, which as you know, bears a large brunt of the excess water (including yesterday’s).

  • Westwood Gal March 31, 2012 (2:13 pm)

    Gene, please don’t dismiss drowing concerns–they are very real. Children can drown in as little as two inches of standing water in a very short amount of time. There are safer, proven methods for addressing the Combined Sewer Overflow problem (e.g. a water storage facility) that won’t create safety hazards in the public right of way. It’s time for the County to abandon this risky project and pursue a safer option. If you support pursuing other, safer options to prevent CSOs, contact me to sign the petition at

  • Eric Hess April 4, 2012 (1:53 pm)

    Sightline has just posted a rebuttal to the letter submitted to Executive Constantine. It’s an item-by-item discussion of the concerns:

    Eric Hess
    Sightline Institute

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