While most discussions about what transit can do for the environment almost always revolve around climate change, transit is part of a larger set of  tools that are critical to save the Puget Sound. Frontline has a great documentary that looks at the environmental challenges that both the Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound are facing.

For the Puget Sound one of the most significant threats is surface runoff caused by impervious surfaces. Limiting sprawl and creating dense, and thus more transit dependent communities is one part of the solution. Reducing runoff through Low-Impact Development (LID) is another. I’m no expert and I know just enough to be dangerous so I’ll leave it there but certainly check out the documentary. Its very informative, both about what causes polluted waters as well as government regulations, or lake there of.

Also, if you’re not familiar with the The Puget Sound Partnership or The Cascade Land Conservancy and their plans, the Puget Sound Action Agenda (better website here) and the Cascade Agenda respectively take a quick look.

43 Replies to “#1 Menace to Waterways”

  1. For those of us who like to poke serious fun at Los Angeles, linked to this subject is the fact that I overheard a report over the weekend that the so called Los Angeles river is disgorging a mountain of shopping carts and other man-discarded debris into the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach!

  2. Great documentary. That second section gave me a lot more respect for Ron Simms. Yes he loves buses too much but he’s really trying to tackle density from the really hard end of the problem (buying land and limiting growth, rather than just encouraging density).

  3. It’s frustrating to me that Governor Gregoire apparently understands the problem but is completely unable to connect the dots to density and transit use.

    1. Yes, she is not wonderful on mass transit, but she is the best we have right now and better her than a Republican who wouldn’t even be able to see the dots, let alone connect them as far as mass transit is concerned.

      1. she is the best we have right now

        I’m not sure what this means; there’s only one governor at a time. In terms of other potential governors I can think of a dozen potentail candidates that would be better.

        I agree that the current state GOP has no one that would be any better. However, with a Democrat-dominated legislature it’s not clear how much damage a Republican governor could do, and at least that person wouldn’t end up framing the left-wing end of the debate as doing nothing about transit and land use.

      2. Well I was basing my comment on the fact that most of us here probably wouldn’t vote for a Republican in any major or even minor office even if they were a close relative! I’m kidding but Governor Gregoire whether we like her or not, is the current executive face of the Democractic party in Washington State and our interests are best served by having as many Democrats in elected office as we can find and elect them. Unlike the British Parliamentary system, unless the governor is impeached for whatever reason, she will surely be around for the next three years at least. Being kind, I would have to say that along with many other suffering Democrats in elected office, she can’t fund the things that she wants to fund and that is a problem inextricably linked to our revenue crisis which in turn is linked to this lousy economy.

      3. I think you’re injecting your opinion on some other issues into this. From a transit advocates’ perspective a do-nothing Democrat is no better or worse than a Republican handcuffed by a Democratic legislature.

      4. Frankly, I’d rather have a Republican for four years. Then we can at least kick them out.

      5. Sad but true. A Republican being elected governor in Washington has about as much chance as a Republican being elected Senator in Massachusetts.

      6. Ben, I just know you wouldn’t really want that – just so that you could have a punch bag for four years!

  4. Someone should show Kemper Freeman the sections on Tysons Corner. Maybe he’d get a better sense of Bellevue’s dysfunctional nature.

  5. See also:

    A truck crashed under the Convention Center. A hundred gallons of diesel found a storm drain. The fuel flowed directly into Lake Union.

    Eric Autry and his crew work for Seattle Public Utilities. They’re scooping up oily leaves contaminated by the spill, and putting them into a bag.
    Long strips of fabric float in the water. It looks like somebody unrolled a pallet of paper towels.

    Autry: “This is what we call a sweep. It’s a really long oil–absorbent pad. It doesn’t soak up water, it only soaks up oil.”


  6. Not sure why CLC gets the head nod here. There are plenty of organizations around the Sound that are far more involved in Puget Sound restoration, conservation, and related agendas. CLC presents a nice place for industry types to launder their images, see eg, the Mountains to Sound Greenway. An aesthetic project posing as an environmental one and sucking millions of dollars from authentic conservation.

    1. Which organizations are better. I included CLC because that was the only non-governmental group that I knew of working on these issues besides the obvious group like the Sierra Club.

      1. Environmental groups working specifically on Puget Sound: Nature Conservancy, Puget Soundkeepers Alliance, People for Puget Sound.
        Not to mention the dozen or so watershed groups planning restoration actions in support of the Puget Sound Chinook salmon Recovery Plan under the aegis of the Puget Sound Partnership.

        Governmental organizations working on stormwater as a Puget Sound/salmon issue: National Marine Fisheries Service, Federal Highways Administration, WSDOT, EPA, Corps of Engineers.

        Others whose work can really influence stormwater and watershed issues affecting Puget Sound: Futurewise, Puget Sound Nearshore Restoration Project (WDFW), Transportation Choices Coalition, etc.

        I certainly didn’t mean to scold. I’m not a big fan of CLC outside of the aesthetic benefit of the work they do. But because of that very fact (their work is largely about “looks”) they reap a lot of credit where organizations like Futurewise are out there actually getting dirty, and doing a lot of work with few assets to protect actual watershed function throughout the Sound and elsewhere with few plaudits.

        At some point in the future, during better economic times, I would expect Norm Dicks and Maria Cantwell to submit legislation creating a Puget Sound clean-up entity based on the Chesapeake Bay model from the 1980’s.

  7. It’s too bad Link didn’t get more porous surfaces through MLK, but obviously that issue was hashed out a very long time ago. A lot of streetcars in Europe run on grass trackways, which are not only pleasant to the eye, but also reduce runoff.

  8. It seems that the dense walkable (sustainable) communities with TOD are part of the problem here, creating all sorts of runoff, since that’s what they are, roofs and concrete (I’m not against TOD, or dense walkable communities). That said, we need to treat the runoff from dense areas before it goes into the streams and ends up in Puget Sound.

    Also, the Snoqualmie River does not flow into Lake Washington, it meets the Skykomish River to form the Snohomish, just south of where 522 crosses it. The water from the Snoqualmie still ends up in Puget Sound, of course, but did Ron Sims even look at a map?

    1. Is that a joke? The denser the neighborhood the more people you fit into the same area. How many people can you fit into a double digit story apartment building? Take that and put them in single family dwellings in your average Levittown. What kind of footprint do all those houses have? How big are the driveways? How many roads do you have to build to reach those homes? How much pestiside and fertilizer are used for the lawns? How much water for the lawns? How many forests/grasslands/fields/wetlands were bulldozed/filled in?

      That’s just for the housing, how about the freeways and stripmalls that go along with such communities? What kind of footprint do THEY all have?

      Unless you advocate genocide, population increases are a given. The only question is will it be up or out.

      1. I wasn’t advocating sprawl, or saying that dense neighborhoods were worse than sprawl developments. You are reading way to much into what I said. I wanted to bring up that the runoff from dense neighborhoods should be treated, because a dense area is concrete and roofs, things that create runoff as well. Get it?

      2. My bad. The ‘part of the problem’ phrase just struck me as wrong. B/c IMO density is part of the solution (more people into a smaller area) not part of the problem.

      3. No worries at all, I should probably choose my words a little more carefully. :-) And, as I alluded to above, I support and like dense neighborhoods and TOD as well.

      4. Density is the problem. Everyone knows that crowding too many animals together in a kennel is bad for them. Having open green space, fresh air and sunshine, a clean house with some land, is better for all people.

    2. “Also, the Snoqualmie River does not flow into Lake Washington, it meets the Skykomish River to form the Snohomish, just south of where 522 crosses it. The water from the Snoqualmie still ends up in Puget Sound, of course, but did Ron Sims even look at a map?”

      I expect he just misspoke. The next river over goes into Lake Washington. As you say, it drains into Puget Sound, so same effect, but maybe some better hope for being a good salmon resource since it doesn’t go through highly urbanized areas.

    3. TOD does not have to mean more impervious surface. TOD can be built with green roofs, pervious pavement, pervious sidewalks, bioswales instead of buried culverts, etc. All it takes is education, money, and political will.

  9. The trend right now is toward smaller houses.

    Small houses spread out with more land don’t increase pollution the way high density high rise apartments do.

    Home business and wimax reduce the need for transportation.

    1. Smaller houses don’t create as much runoff as larger houses, but you still have a lot more roof and driveway per dwelling unit in a 600 sq.ft. house than you do in even a 4-story apartment building.

      For a given number of people, high density means less runoff concentrated in a smaller area.

  10. I haven’t had time to see the documentary yet, but one way to reduce runoff is to use permeable paving materials, where possible, so that some water percolates into the ground instead of running into storm drains.

    1. The city did some of this a few years back with their SeaStreets pilot program. Not sure what happened to it.

  11. Huh, that’s interesting…. I saw that exact same clip and more at a cool lecture at the U.W. , part of their NEXT CITY: Sustainable Urbanization lecture series last November. It was by Hedrick Smith, who is the journalist who wrote that documentary from PBS. He made some really good points, especially about Tysons Corner vs. Arlington VA. I would recommend watching chapters 12 and 13 .

  12. If we had no storm water runoff for how long could ‘natural’ filtering keep up? I mean at some point the groundwater would get so toxic it would leach out chemicals into the sound eventually right? At the least we are going to poison groundwater sources… the solution seems to be drastically cutting down the pollution levels to me

    1. Quite a while actually. Small scale projects like rain gardens can have a big effect. Of course that get’s significantly harder the more dense a neighborhood becomes. Still, green roofs are one area that can have a big impact. Less paved area devoted to parking helps too. The “hated” underground garage at least has the advantage there. Or a multi story structure if it’s not just creating more parking. But yes, cutting down the pollution levels is key. With the wet weather “oil slicks” are easy to see. I’ve noted that on garbage day the hydraulic leakage from the trucks far exceeds the entire rest of the week.

    2. Biofiltration doesn’t just slow down pollution, it actually gets rid of much of it.

      Soil microbes digest spilled oil.

      Heavy metals bind to certain minerals and are absorbed by certain plants.

      Aerobic soil microbes break down sewage and eliminate many pathogens.

      If you can keep the concentration of pollution down to a reasonable level, and give it enough time to flow through vegetation and soil, it’s amazing how well plain old dirt cleans groundwater.

  13. I wish I could find the reference, some time last year I was reading an interesting piece on the construction of parking garages to clean surface water.

    If I remember correctly, the top level of the parking garage uses grassy pavers rather than asphalt. (6″ of soil, with a plastic grid embedded in the top 2″ of soil. The plastic grid spreads the load, so cars driving on it don’t kill the grass or compact the soil.)

    The drainage from the top level of parking is channeled to the bottom level of the garage, which has inflitration matrixes under the parking deck, and has water storage to provide irrigation of the top level in dry weather.

    If I remember correctly, the cleaning capacity of the green parking deck exceeds the pollution output of the cars parked there, so you could actually pump water up from street drains and use the garage to help remediate street runoff.

    Besides turning parking runoff into clean groundwater, this also reduces the heating effect of the parking structure. (An acre of asphalt baking in the sun raises air temperatures in the city; an acre of grass lowers surface temperatures.)

    Of course, you can do the same thing with non-parking structures — warehouses would be a great place for this style of construction, since the green roof reduces summer air conditioning needs as well as reducing runoff. Picture all the warehouse roofs from Southcenter to Sumner replaced with plantings that slow flood flow to the Green River while supporting native wildlife….

Comments are closed.