Sunrise Heights/Westwood ‘bioswales’: County insists they won’t be Ballard Raingardens Redux

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

After two community meetings in the past five days, residents of Sunrise Heights and Westwood know exactly which planting strips the county is eyeing for potential “bioswales” to keep rainwater from causing combined sewer overflows (CSO) at Barton Pump Station, miles downhill – specific spots along the 31 blocks identified in early March.

They also know how the county hopes to keep them from “ponding” during all but the heaviest rains – through a complex underground “underdrain” system.

But some remain skeptical that the “green stormwater infrastructure” project will not be Ballard Roadside Raingardens, The Sequel, though the project manager insists it won’t.

The ghost of that problem-plagueed city project has long loomed over this county plan, despite reassurances, promises, and explanations of how the two situations differ. There were more of those Wednesday night at the first gathering inside Westside School (the second meeting was Saturday at High Point Community Center), even as project manager Mary Wohleb tried to keep Ballard from being the proverbial elephant in the room.

Early on, Wohleb said: “I want to talk straight on about Ballard – it was fast-tracked, less than 4 months from study to construction. We’ve been studying this for almost a year, (and have a) clear understanding of soils, technology, how to take the water into underdrains and move it on down, way deep, far away from people’s homes so we can control the bioswale overflow … Having said all that, I understand this is a change, and that’s scary, and you’ve heard some nasty things …”

Chief among those “nasty” things – at least in context, for residents – would be residents having heard that the soil right beneath their homes is drainage-challenged “hardpan” – just like Ballard. Right beneath it, though, engineers say, is a different type of soil, “Vashon Advance Outwash,” and that’s what the county plans to drain this soil into. “We’ve been taking time to understand this neighborhood,” said consultant Steve Burke from SVR Design Company.

“We are going to be moving it down and away,” is how Wohleb put it.

In the absolute heaviest of rainstorms, there could still be “ponding” from one to 12 inches of water, which the county says would clear out within 24 hours. Residents remain worried about the possibility children could fall in and drown, since it is often warned that a small child needs only an inch or two of water to drown, and many of these streets are on the way to, or near, facilities such as E.C. Hughes Playground or Westside School.

“High Point has never had a person fall into its bioretention swales,” Wohleb noted. A High Point photo was shown as part of the presentation:

And about the concerns that someday money might run out and King County would suddenly abandon maintenance of the “bioswales”? “This is a facility,” she declared. “We are responsible for maintaining our facilities. We’re starting to put together a maintenance plan.”

She was joined at the meetings by consultants, primarily from SVR Design, which worked on the High Point project.

This all comes more than two years after the county’s Wastewater Treatment Division initiated the state-mandated process of figuring out how to cut down on the CSOs from pump stations including Barton; in December 2010, it announced that the “green stormwater infrastructure” plan was its choice for the “basin” feeding Barton, while for the basin feeding Murray Pump Station at Lowman Beach, it would instead put in a huge new underground storage tank (for which it has purchased and will demolish a block full of residential properties across from the city-owned beach park). This is the first time the county has tried this kind of project, and that too has caused trepidation among residents.

This round of meetings came at the end of the “preliminary design” phase; the county expects to start construction next year. The meetings were formatted with a presentation up front – here’s the complete PowerPoint that was shown (large PDF) – and then small-group breakouts, neighborhood by neighborhood, so that the targeted locations could be discussed with people who live on those blocks.

During the presentation, one Wednesday attendee requested the chance to ask a question in front of the whole group, but was told “this isn’t really the forum for that.” Attendees were directed to the small groups. The county says the questions it collected will be posted online, though.

Questions we heard on Wednesday night included “how will the pipes (underdrain) not clog?” (Answer: Crews will have access to cleanouts.) “How were streets chosen (or excluded)?” Arterials were left out because of “permitting and restrictions on traffic flow,” for example, while a few streets got a pass because they “have a separate storm system.” A wide planting strip was considered ideal – that’s what we saw, for example, last Monday night, when meeting with concerned neighbors in the 7900 block of 30th SW:

One concern in that conversation: What about the trees? The briefers promised that “preservation of large existing trees is a priority,” as well as that they would “protect large trees on private property adjacent to the right-of-way.” But “small or unhealthy trees in the right-of-way may be removed or replaced.” The 30th SW neighbors had noted a recent visit by workers measuring to see if tree trunks were at least six inches wide; it was explained in the small-group discussion, that’s a city standard. One more tree note: Some of the underdrain boring would go UNDER the trees and their root zones – at least five feet down, says the project team.

The curb cuts for private driveways – the section that goes over the sidewalk – would be dug up while the underdrain is being installed, though project-team members say that wouldn’t take more than a day or two at each site. And then there are the potential curb bulbs (also marked on the very dense schematic at the end of this large PDF), which would jut out five feet into the existing street.

More uneasiness seemed to center on the “steppable zone” between bioswale “cells.” It was described as about six feet wide, with landscaping you could “step” on, “pretty easy to cross,” according to Jennifer Lathrop from SVR.

“(The rendering) shows a car blocking the ‘steppable zone’,” one resident pointed out.

Jennifer acknowledged that could happen.

The “cells” would have a failsafe, in case of that mega-storm – which could send the water back out into the street and into a drain that would connect to the combined-sewer system, if there was just no place left for the water to go.

The small group we observed on Wednesday night included the block along 30th where we met neighbors two nights earlier. In twos and threes, they stepped forward to the rendering on the wall depicting their specific block, to find out where the bioswales might be placed, and why those specific planting strips were chosen. “It’s custom,” explained SVR’s Peg Staeheli. “The detail changes on every block.”

WHAT’S NEXT: The project team is moving into “final design.” In early summer, they plan to come out to the neighborhoods, block by block, to meet with residents about specific locations, while continuing to evaluate the locations revealed at the meetings. Later in the summer, a workshop to look at the plants proposed for bioswales – then “continuing to work on final design with you.” In the meantime, they promised to continue adding information to the project website (which starts here). And here’s the timeline shown as a graphic in the public-meeting presentation:

33 Replies to "Sunrise Heights/Westwood 'bioswales': County insists they won't be Ballard Raingardens Redux"

  • JoB April 3, 2012 (4:39 am)

    I live in the project area and was unable to attend either community meeting.

    is there somewhere that we can find the specific blocks that are expected to be impacted?

    • WSB April 3, 2012 (8:44 am)

      JoB – I would advise contacting the project team directly (the last link “project website” should take you to an info-dense page with contact info at the far lower right). They sent me the “here are the specific properties” layout as the third page in a compiled PDF that I couldn’t break out – it’s linked in the story and labeled as such but honestly, if I lived in that area, I would need to zoom it to about 10,000 percent to be sure that was “my” planting strip – I would just contact the county and say “I’m at xxx xxth SW, am I or am I not a target property” … TR

  • lance April 3, 2012 (8:41 am)

    do not believe a word they say. Signed, Ballard

  • bridge to somewhere April 3, 2012 (8:51 am)

    That county provided map in the PDF information package is TERRIBLE! Impossibly dense, and also, who orients a map so that the North points to the left?! Perhaps the project team should have recognized that the first thing citizens want to know is, “will this affect me,” and then optimize their communication packages to help citizens answer that question.

  • Hoyne April 3, 2012 (8:59 am)

    Thanks JoB and WSB – that was my question exactly. We were on vacation and missed these meetings.

    • WSB April 3, 2012 (9:41 am)

      I am also e-mailing the PR folks to see if they plan to put the separate renderings online … each of the four breakout groups from the community meetings had a sheaf of sheets. – TR

  • Wetone April 3, 2012 (9:37 am)

    All I know is when they did the High Point project my home and many of my neighbors homes all started having problems with leaky basements. City said it was not related. I have to believe them as they could never be wrong:)

  • cjboffoli April 3, 2012 (10:14 am)

    As people continue to comment with their concerns (and cynicism) about the problems they think this project might cause, maybe it is worth a reminder of the problem the County is attempting to mitigate.
    Seattle’s combined sewers overflow into local waterways an average of 318 times per year. In 2010 for example, 190 million gallons of untreated raw sewage and storm water discharged into local marine habitats. I’m horrified by these numbers. 190 MILLION GALLONS OF UNTREATED RAW SEWAGE released into the water that surrounds us; the same water that some of us fish from, that some of us boat and swim in, that we all like to live around and look at. We’re treating our waterways like a sewer and just pretending that we’re not. Honestly, isn’t it quite enough that our grandparents’ generation brought irreparable harm to the Duwamish? Do we really need to be so gung ho about continuing the tradition?
    The West Seattle Blog has extensively covered videos from local diver Laura James who has actually photographed some of the storm water outflows. What’s not so easily seen is the detriment that our storm and waste water brings to marine life that are respirating all of the crap we’re dumping into the water.
    Personally, I’d welcome the addition of bioswales to my street. Bring them on! While I can’t say that the word ‘government’ is one that often conjures thoughts of innovation and efficiency, I’m actually happy that King County is taking some action on this as it seems we’re all too interested in our own backyards to care about what we’re doing to our waterways every day.

  • Christine April 3, 2012 (10:43 am)

    Watch out for this one: “In the absolute heaviest of rainstorms, there could still be ‘ponding’ from one to 12 inches of water, which the county says would clear out within 24 hours.” In Ballard they found out SPU meant *after* it stops raining. So this last March, would it have drained at all, or would you have 12 inches of standing water for a month? It is still within their specs.

  • KCWTD April 3, 2012 (1:12 pm)

    Just a quick response to people to let folks know we’re working on getting some new, easier-to-read street maps on our project website,

    In the meantime, if you have specific questions about a parcel or street, please contact Community Relations Planner Kristine Cramer 206-263-3184 or email

  • A April 3, 2012 (1:37 pm)

    Recently bought a home in the target area and this was not disclosed. NOT AMUSED.

  • Wetone April 3, 2012 (2:37 pm)

    So who is liable if someone falls in or over one of these areas ? property owners or city. I believe the city owns the parking strip area but property owners are responsible for maintaining. I really think this city has better ways to spend our tax dollars. Like fixing existing roads maybe. Would also like to know what the budget for projects like this are from design, build, through projected maintenance. Go to the meetings and ask ????

  • Perry Wien April 3, 2012 (3:18 pm)

    People always resist new ideas, and have trouble understanding how much damage we are currently doing to the Sound/all other waters. I don’t blame people who are concerned about these new ways to keep our poisons out of the Sound. However, the mistrust of government theme we see here is poisoning our society’s ability to deal with the larger problems our children will face. What will it take to educate people about how harmless these parking strip solutions are to prevent killing the
    beautiful sea animals we cherish?

  • Isn't it swale April 3, 2012 (3:41 pm)

    I’m slated to have one of these in front of my house, and I am a staunch advocate for a cleaner Puget Sound – BUT, I have two concerns: 1) From the flow map, it appears that the 45% flow from this area to the Barton CSO originates at Westwood Village, not in our neighborhood – where is their solution for surface runoff in that pavement paradise?; and 2) Our property is one of four in a row with driveways, and all of us are targeted for swales. I understood that areas without driveways were preferred. The project just feels more like someone’s mission than a solution. Can we find out what percentage of the 45% flow is coming from Westwood Village vs. our project area? Then we can all get on the same page about the problem. Right now, as green as I am…I remain a skeptic.

  • Harry Reems April 3, 2012 (3:56 pm)

    How is the county paying for this?

  • gatewooder April 3, 2012 (4:30 pm)

    I share the scepticism. The project engineer, SvR, is the same one that worked on Ballard. When the project went wrong, they blamed it all on the contactor and never took responsibility for poor engineering. There may well be a geological outwash under this project area, but that outwash still has to get to Puget Sound somehow. Just where it outwashes is the question – and I would want that to happen to be living in that area when the water gets there months or even years later.

  • Isn't it swale April 3, 2012 (4:32 pm)

    For more on what I posted earlier about the 45% flow originating at Westwood Village, see Page 5 of this PDF:

    It seems clear to me that the flow is coming from WWV, and not from those of us North of Thistle. I’m no hydrogeologist, but I can read this map that has been paraded out at every meeting so far.

    So, tell me…where is the WWV Rain Garden being located? Is it really true that there are inadequately sized stormwater retention tanks under WWV today? If so, are our little neighborhood gardens really supposed to mitigate that?

    I honestly started off liking this project, but I really expected to see something progressive at WWV to tackle this enormous quantity of water. Give me THAT and a Raingarden here and there and I’d be onboard again.

  • Jacob April 3, 2012 (5:01 pm)

    The CSO is a huge issue. However – there’s a new term in the air – “green-washing.” It means using green solutions because they sound neat, but really a hardier solution exists to make sure our Sound stays green. Like large underground vaults. It’s a better solution long-term. Then the ENTIRE CITY won’t need a “rain garden.” Look it up – Seattle wants to install 12,000 of these things to make a difference. These are piddily solutions for a huge problem.

  • susieq April 3, 2012 (6:42 pm)

    Isn’t it swale: The 45% of flow is from the entire project area, not Westwood Village. What’s illustrated on that map is the trunk line our sewer lines feed into. WWV has a GIGANTIC underground vault south of the Bank of America – it was visible during the renovation construction. Also, areas without driveways are preferred, but you may live on a ‘thrown’ street (all drainage goes to one side) rather than a ‘crowned’ street (drains to both sides.)

    Christopher: Thanks for getting some of the horrible facts out there. 190 million gallons of untreated raw sewage?!! You hit the nail on the head: “We’re treating our waterways like a sewer and just pretending that we’re not.”

    Come on, folks. We’re all on the same side here. One of the things we love about the WSB is how our publishers rush to the site of orcas, seal pups, and bald eagles as quickly as other daily news. From all our comments, we adore our Sound and all the life that depends on it. Please, come to the meetings, read the science, and give it a chance. Rain gardens work well when planned well. This project is being planned well.

  • susieq April 3, 2012 (6:45 pm)

    Isn’t it swale: The 45% of flow is from the entire project area, not Westwood Village. What’s illustrated on that map is the trunk line our sewer lines feed into. WWV has a GIGANTIC underground vault south of the Bank of America – it was visible during the renovation construction. Also, areas without driveways are preferred, but you may live on a ‘thrown’ street (all drainage goes to one side) rather than a ‘crowned’ street (drains to both sides.)

    Christopher: Thanks for getting some of the horrible facts out there. 190 million gallons of untreated raw sewage?!! You hit the nail on the head: “We’re treating our waterways like a sewer and just pretending that we’re not.”

    Come on, folks. We’re all on the same side here. One of the things we love about the WSB is how our publishers rush to the site of orcas, seal pups, and bald eagles as quickly as other daily news. From all our comments, we adore our Sound and all the life that depends on it. Please, come to the meetings, read the science, and give it a chance. Rain gardens work well when planned well. This project is being planned well.

  • Tbone April 3, 2012 (7:33 pm)

    Is there a reason why they couldn’t/didn’t put this into the upgrades at the Myrtle street reservoir? Or why not not at the former Denny Middle school site (a block down the street!) where they just built a playground? Or Roxhill park, instead of the proposed skateboard rink? Just wondering.

  • Tuesday April 3, 2012 (7:36 pm)

    I, for one, feel mistrust is in order. Why trust those who feel they have a right to steamroll citizens and personal property rights? The government should be about protecting people’s property rights, but sadly, more and more it’s about usurping those rights for some “greater good” decided from on high. I’m sure people with the great expense of dealing with leaky basements feel great about the trust everyone else puts in the government. Yet another project rammed through regardless of what people who personally have to deal with the fallout have to say about it.

  • Westwood Gal April 4, 2012 (9:27 am)

    Something that needs to be clarified right now is that people showing skepticism are not saying they don’t want to solve the problem–we all do. The issue is whether or not bioswales are the right solution–or do they cause too many new, unintended problems? There are other solutions, including a storage facility, that the County seems unwilling to pursue, primarily due to cost. If you want to advocate for a safer CSO solution that is more likely to work, please contact me to sign the petition:

  • NDR April 4, 2012 (9:29 am)

    Oh, they nightmare we dealt with in Ballard. The worst part is we were on all board in the beginning. Then for ONE YEAR, we were saying, “Um, aren’t these ponds supposed to drain?” It was so obvious there was a problem. And the entire time, people called us names and said we were anti-environment and NIMBYs and complainers and…then they finally had to take them out. Same goes here – the name-calling. Yes, we ALL want to protect the Sound. But do these engineers know what they’re doing? My advice – Bring in your own hydrologist to study the plans.

  • gatewooder April 4, 2012 (12:02 pm)

    This is the right solution for the wrong region. Unlike Portland, our soils don’t percolate, so all of the complex ways that are being devised to solve that fundamental problem are just patches on what is essentially a strategic flaw in logic. It is frustrating that the money for this isn’t going into a working solution to the very real problem of stormwater off of our streets running into Puget Sound. Unfortunately, to many a green soundbite is more important than a real engineering solution that solves the environmental issue.

  • KCWTD April 4, 2012 (1:10 pm)

    It’s great to see so many people asking questions and offering comments on the project. Just to make a clarification, SVR was NOT the design team on the Ballard project. There are many differences between how the Barton project would work compared to other projects, and we’re happy to talk to people one-on-one and to answer specific questions and hear concerns, so please feel free to call Community Relations Planner Kristine Cramer 206-263-3184 or email

    • WSB April 4, 2012 (2:29 pm)

      Regarding flows …
      We’ve been covering this since the first meetings in fall of 2009. Somewhere along the line, very specific information was presented regarding exactly where along the line which percentage of which flow to which pump station was generated. I haven’t found that story yet but will keep looking as time between today’s other week allows. In the meantime, though it’s not easy to navigate, there is an avalanche of info on the county website – including technical info here. I suspect that if you ask the folks the county points you to, they will be more than happy to direct you to the specific page and specific research report for an answer on those questions – and if it still isn’t what you’re looking for, keep asking until it is – they have thousands of pages of documents by now … TR

  • Peter April 4, 2012 (1:10 pm)

    It’s amazing how much opposition there is t to Swales based merely on a couple in Ballard that were done wrong, despite there being thousands of these in the Northwest that work wonderfully.
    Here is a point by point debunking of the disinformation and scare tactics being used by the opponents:

  • Isn't it swale April 4, 2012 (1:20 pm)

    @ Susieq – do you live in the project area? And, if so, are you slated to get a “swale”?
    Just wondering…

    And I believe I read the map correctly, but in the first meeting I recall we discussed that WWV stormwater flows down Barton also. I also know that in 1962 there was a lake where Westwood Village now is. And it was filled in! And, I recall raw sewage flowing up through the parking lot there in the Christmas Eve storm of 2005. Then Seattle Parks rerouted Longfellow Creek’s headwaters at Roxhill Park into a new wetland and also some of that dampness into the storm sewer system, because the park was too wet to maintain properly (accoring to the plan I read). Some of that water now likely flows down Barton! So, yeah…45% of the flow is in that line, but I am not buying that most of it comes from our neighborhood. I want to see detailed flow maps and I want to see that WWV is not a major contributor to this 45% before I buy into the plan. This is me protecting the environment.

  • concerned April 4, 2012 (2:54 pm)

    Does anyone have information as to how this will affect homes that are below street/sidewalk level?
    In meetings it was stated that these are facilties that they would maintain like all other facilities. What are the back up plans if these do not operate properly? Business have escape routes in case of a fire or codes established for potential issues, however in the meetings these questions have not been addressed except to state they do not anticipate an issue. The uncertainity leaves alot of questions about homeowner liability that I feel still needs to be addressed before I am able to say whether I am for or against such a project. Not to mention what happens when funding is no longer available to maintain said facility.

  • hamamelis1955 April 4, 2012 (7:00 pm)

    I don’t understand why the smaller scale raingardens are continuing to be promoted instead of the larger scale, better functioning natural drainage swales like those in Broadview and Pinehurst. Broadview was built in 2002/3 and Pinehurst in 2004/5 and both have functioned well. Viewlands Cascade and the original SEA (Street Edge Alternative) Street preceed both by 2 or 3 years. The smaller scale Ballard-type raingardens, or bioswales, aren’t properly scaled to handle the larger flows during significant storm events. The swales in Broadview and Pinehurst are larger, hold more water before it flows out and they have a larger scale, more robust landscape surrounding them. They serve also as miniature wildlife habitats. The Ballard raingardens have mostly sedges and rushes in the bottoms where the water flows and smaller, lower growing groundcovers and shrubs and small tree species. If bioswales are going to be engineered and built and maintained then why not properly scale them to the environment within which they need to function? The Ballard raingardens look as if they belong in someone’s yard, not in a rough and tumble street right-of-way where they can be subjected to all sorts of abuse. The planted landscape needs to be larger shrubs and trees that can become a very durable part of such a drainage system – and include provisions for wildlife.

  • hamamelis1955 April 4, 2012 (7:40 pm)

    I would further suggest that the Sunrise Heights/Westwood bioswales have larger swales on only one side of the street with parking on the non-swale side. This would help alleviate some of the circulation difficulty of crossing the landscaped zone. No matter what anyone says there is only one plant that will stand up well to frequent foot traffic and that is grass. However, grass is the scourge of landscapes and will creep in and slowly destroy it. Few plants can out compete grass. Stepping stones pose their own problems. One of the mistakes made with Broadview and Pinehurst Green Grids is that vehicles were allowed to park on the swale side of the street and on planted berms. Needless to say there has been damage done to the landscapes. Still not sure I understand why, with more than 13 years “experience” building these things the city isn’t more adept at it. I think part of the problem is that the engineers and some of the other design consultants hired on don’t “get out much” and have very little practical knowledge and experience with these. Their perspective is one of making it “look good on paper” – or the computer screen, if you will. This is a shame because stormwater drainage issues are destroying (or rather have destroyed) our urban creeks and streams and the fish in them and the wildlife surrounding them. We do need to do something constructive about this issue – but we need to get designers on board who have done stream restorations, understand hydrology, are horticulturists and have first hand experience getting their hands dirty working with these systems. These pretty little toy things that are being proposed and built now are not appropriate in scale, landscape or function. They are like make believe, pretend offerings that are woefully under built. They are window dressing.

  • greenwithinreason April 9, 2012 (11:21 pm)

    I’m slated to have a government-sponsored open ditch in front of my house. Didn’t we eliminate open cesspools sometime during the Industrial Revolution? Don’t get me wrong–I’m definitely on board with finding a solution to the CSO issue, but I’m extremely concerned with the way this ill-conceived solution is being crammed down our throats. From the very beginning, it was clear the alternative options (two potential locations for holding tanks) were paid nothing more than lip service. These other options were barely mentioned, but we were fed lengthy, glowing descriptions of “bio-swales” and shown lovely photos of them in locations much better suited to such infrastructure. My basement is downhill from my parking strip and, after diligently working for years to manage surface water on my property, I’ve been able to keep my basement completely dry for nearly a decade. With my basement now converted to fully finished living space (insulation, drywall, wainscoting, rugs, etc.), I would suffer extensive damages if large volumes of water were suddently re-routed into my front yard. I’m seriously considering pre-emptive litigation. Oh, and for those who might be tempted to “scold” me, please either 1) do me the courtesy of keeping your smug, pro-ditch opinion to yourself or 2) put your money where your mouth is and put up a $50K bond for repairs to my house. Clear enough?

Sorry, comment time is over.