Rescuing Roxhill Bog: Why it matters, and what’s happening now

(WSB photo, April 2019)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Call it Roxhill Bog, Roxhill Fen, Roxhill Wetland. Whatever you call it, it needs to be rescued, and the time is now.

Community advocates have sounded that alarm for many years. Now, it appears the wetland’s plight has the traction for something serous to finally get done.

That was the message at the “stakeholders’ meeting” that filled a room at Southwest Teen Life Center in Westwood last Tuesday night. The sign-in sheets showed a long list of organizations concerned with the health of the local environment.

“The bog is dry.” Opening the meeting, that’s how Rory Denovan – a West Seattleite who has long been involved wth the effort to help the bog – summarized the primary problem.

If that leads you to wonder “so what?” Denovan had answers for that right off the top. Three reasons why Roxhill is important:

-It’s peat land
-It’s Longfellow Creek‘s headwaters wetland
-It’s a community asset

As peat land – “probably more a sedge fen than a bog” – Denovan said it’s a “giant carbon sink,” he explained, saying scientists believe that 10 feet of peat can store 10 times what a forest above it can store.

As headwaters, it has a vital role to play in the health of what’s downstream, both Longfellow Creek and the Duwamish River. Headwaters can retain stormwater to reduce flooding downstream, and in the hottest, driest months of the year, they can help keep the system cool.

As a community asset, it’s a “gem” in Roxhill Park, a place kids and their families can go to observe and learn about nature, a place that’s been used by schools from elementaries to South Seattle College (WSB sponsor), a place where the Audubon Society has done bird counts as it’s “one of the most diverse bird (areas) in West Seattle.”

But it’s dry. And that’s a threat, not just to the above attributes, but to the peat itself. Denovan recalled the 2017 fire, saying SFD “had to call Scotland” for advce on how to fight it.

(WSB photo, October 2017)

Another threat to the bog: Drinking and drug use in the park. Denovan showed a photo of syringes in what he said was an area that should have been underwater, “and if it had standing water, this would not be happening in the bog.”

A little history: In the 1930s, farming and some peat mining was happening in the area; the peat land stretched beyond the park’s current boundaries. Some of it was capped when Westwood Village (across the street to the north) was built; some of it was capped when the road was built; some of it was filled when the park site was donated: “We didn’t know better at the time.” Awareness of its importance started rising in the 1990s, and there was restoration work. But then around 2006, “the water went away.”

How to bring it back is what’s being determined now. “We have an opportunity to solve this problem”… but “we have to do it now” because it’s “degrading rapidly.”

Two local elected officials who have worked to support the new efforts, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and County Councilmember Joe McDermott, were introduced. Herbold detailed some of the work she had done since taking office to support those who had long been seeking a solution (she wrote about it in her online newsletter last Friday). McDermott helped secure a county grant that’s paying for much of what’s being done now. He spoke about literally a high-level view of the situation – flying out of the area and observing from above that there “are no boundaries” – it’s all connected.

A regional representative of the national organization American Rivers, Brandon Parsons, spoke too, calling this “a tremendous opportunity to impact the people as well as the environment” all along Longfellow Creek. A place like this “doesn’t exist everywhere – (it) could be a showcase of what could happen.” But he vowed “this is real – we’re going to take real action on this.”

Then – a closer look at what’s happening, via wetland hydrologist Steve Winter of Natural Systems Design. Here’s his slide deck (PDF), as also shown below:

Roxhill Wetland slide deck by WestSeattleBlog on Scribd

Winter lives in West Seattle. “Peat is so awesome!” he exclaimed as he began, explaining that wetlands like Roxhill Bog are rare in our state, only a quarter of one percent of the land, and “really incredible.” They trace back to the end of the last Ice Age. He showed photos including a King County image from 1936, a 1961 photo of the Osaki family’s farm in the area, a 1968 sewer buildout on SW Cambridge, a 1969 aerial view of the park, and the 1961 photo we’ve featured multiple times showing digging during road-building. Seattle Public Utilities has taken oral histories of the area, Winter said, also showing a newspaper ad from 1950 for “humus,” reminding attendees that peat was seen as a “resource” too.

After the history, he discussed what they’re studying – the current groundwater presence (“much less water coming nto the area than used to,” 17 acres feeding the area compared to 98 acres at one point in the past). In May 2005, water was seen in three “cells” in the area, but something happened after that, and now the peat is deteriorating for lack of water.

Studies did not reveal a “smoking gun” regarding what’s caused that, Winter said, but instead, there are several factors: Increased evaporation, increased “lateral flow,” low level of graundwater. In short, they need to figure out how to get more stormwater to the bog, and tt’s “going to involve some digging, I’m afraid,” he added. The water would be treated before feeding it into the bog, rather than just sending in contaminated runoff.

How much time will the next phase take? A few months. Then they’ll have strategies for what needs to be done to get the water going where it needs to go to save the wetland. One attendee suggested a vegetation change might be in order, too.

“We need to get the water in there and it’ll be OK,” Winter reiterated, while cautioning that it won’t be “exactly what it was.”

One attendee expressed concern that developing a plan and executing it will take years, while the peat is at risk now. Can anything be done in the short run? A temporary irrigation system? Capping part of the area? Winter agreed that some short-term protection might be a good idea.

What about engaging with SPU? asked Willard Brown, who has been working on another wetland-restoration project in Delridge, with DNDA. They’re already engaged, Winter replied, pointing to “at least three” SPU employees on hand. One of them noted, “We’re looking at creating the financial & policy tools to be able to allow the stormwater coming off Cambridge … if we can route water into the bog, we can (help the systems)… we’re optimistic we’ll be able to make it happen.”

What opportunities will there be for residents to get involved? Many, suggested Winter, saying they’re just starting to “get the message out.” Community events are expected to start in late summer.

15 Replies to "Rescuing Roxhill Bog: Why it matters, and what's happening now"

  • anonyme February 18, 2020 (7:01 am)

    The bog dried up right after the SDOT/Metro work on the south side of Barton that turned the area into a bus mall.  Coincidence?  People long familiar with the inlets and outlets of the bog say that much of the old system was simply paved over.  The situation needs to be explored in-depth and on the ground, and may involve trying to get SDOT to cooperate.   Good luck with that.

    • Friend O'Dinghus February 18, 2020 (7:56 am)

      I am curious about this comment. To my knowledge, apart from some concrete work involving the widening the side walks, a new rapid ride stop, a fence, some additional street lights perhaps, there was no deep work performed in the last decade that would have impacted the movement of underground  water into or out of the bog. I am not a hydrologist, although I bet one was consulted prior to that point. Is there a report which bears out your comment above; specifically that the bog has suffered any detrimental effect from the buses or the stop placement? I ask because the stops/modifications haven’t been there longer than a few years now. When you say ‘people long familiar with the inlets and outlets of the bog say that much of the old system was simply paved over’, can you please site these references so me may confirm this belief is indeed held by them, when this alleged “paving over” occurred, and their opinion is based on experience in this field of expertise? Thank you for the additional information, and specifically answers to the above. I think everyone is interested in saving this natural water table in all ways deemed appropriate for its long term health. Thank you in advance.

    • dsa February 18, 2020 (1:02 pm)

        I believe Anonyme is simply trying to state that the aforementioned work diverted surface water away from the bog.

      • Friend O'Dinghus February 18, 2020 (4:31 pm)

        Thanks for the clarification, but did it divert a significant surface area away from the bog, or are these issues unrelated to the larger bus stops and double-wide sidewalks? While I’m sure it wasn’t helpful, I am not so sure I would say it had any impact at all, much less caused it. The lay-over buses themselves surely didn’t impact the volume of runoff water at all. I wish to save this for future generations, but blaming the drying of the bog on the bus stops installed in the last few years is a stretch of objectivity.

    • dsa February 18, 2020 (5:38 pm)

      Hi Friend O’Dinghus,  The thing is, it appears that or the sum of cumulative projects have diverted rainwater  either by covering surfaces or changing runoff routes.  I’ve seen ponds dry up and even the runoff in front of my home switch sides when the city did a simple patch uphill.  Replacing the missing water will be a challenge at Roxhill.

      • HS February 18, 2020 (6:50 pm)

        However, now would be the time to revisit water runoff in the neighborhood as projects are moving through permitting. Fen / peat forest and Longfellow creek could certainly benefit from runoff diversion. I’m really happen to see this slide presentation. It’d be really amazing if the south end of West Seattle were known for A Fen Forest, Longfellow creek and Lincoln Park. 

      • Friend O'Dinghus February 18, 2020 (8:19 pm)

        I don’t mean to be a stickler, or continue the circular nature of my comment string, however I feel my original point is valid. Regarding ‘the thing is, it appears that or the sum of cumulative projects have diverted rainwater  either by covering surfaces or changing runoff routes’ is something I can appreciate, as it is exactly my point. We do not know (I certainly don’t anyway) whether it’s the bus stop or the sum of cumulative projects that has diverted rainwater. Regarding ‘the bog dried up right after the SDOT/Metro work on the south side of Barton that turned the area into a bus mall.  Coincidence?  People long familiar with the inlets and outlets of the bog say that much of the old system was simply paved over’ implies that these are not cumulative effects, but direct effects caused by ‘SDOT/Metro work on the south side of Barton that turned the area into a bus mall’ and ‘much of the old system was simply paved over’. The bus stops being moved there approx. 5 years ago is a very contentious issue. I do not wish to conflate that issue with saving the bog is all I am saying. Objectivity rules, and I would like to hear a hydrologist or civil engineer speak specifically to the effect the bus stop has had on the bog, should the two issues be truly intertwined, or simply stick to ‘cumulative effects’ over the years.

    • dsa February 18, 2020 (10:14 pm)

      ” hydrologist or civil engineer speak specifically to the effect the bus stop has had on the bog”  I am retired from civil engineering and have a soils and hydrology background.  That said this determination requires examining before and after conditions which they probably will do.

      • Friend O'Dinghus February 19, 2020 (7:15 am)

        This is the approach I was hoping to hear. Thank you for your interest in responding, and even bigger thanks for your interests in saving our fen. Let’s get underway and finally adequately protect this jewel!

  • AmandaK February 18, 2020 (7:39 am)

    Thank you for this coverage!  I am thrilled to see some governmental interest and money given to fully understand what happened, and what it will take to correct it.  With the City approving the massive upzone of the Westwood/Highland Park Urban VIllage, this could not come at a better time.  We need to preserve the fen and protect Longfellow Creek.

  • JRR February 18, 2020 (9:49 am)

    Our community has been the exploited and devalued section of the city for too long. It’s exciting to see some amount of commitment to our health and happiness with this project. Yes, it’s about water quality, but it’s really about people.

  • deooo February 18, 2020 (1:01 pm)

    I hope WSB lets us know about any potential volunteering opportunities. I enjoyed the Duwamish river cleanup and would like to do more good.

  • bolo February 18, 2020 (2:27 pm)

    Regarding the “17 acres feeding the area compared to 98 acres at one point in the past,” does the lack of a “smoking gun” statement mean to say nobody knows why or how the groundwater resource area was greatly diminished?

  • Chris K February 19, 2020 (7:11 am)

    I’m getting t-shirts printed for the effort: “Save Roxhill Bog — For Peat’s Sake”

    • AmandaK February 19, 2020 (7:22 pm)

      I’d totally wear that Chris!!

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