Green goals conquer a cascade of pollution

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

  • Saturday, April 26, 2008 8:00am
  • Opinion

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

In the previous column on city environmental priorities, I examined the issue of global warming.

While it’s an issue deserving city attention (by the way, I’m glad to see that Rep. Skip Priest and Rep. Mark Miloscia are supporting the current global warming bill in the state Legislature), I warned of the danger of losing sight of local environmental priorities.

One of the most urgent environmental issues facing our community and Puget Sound is urban stormwater. City government is starting to look at a new philosophy of development, known as Low Impact Development. If they embrace it, the health of our local streams and wetlands would get a much-needed boost. And let’s face it, if global warming is a moral imperative, then keeping our own water clean has to be as well.

When it comes to clean water, our stormwater ain’t. As rain washes over our roofs, roads and parking lots, it picks up the less seemly by-products of urban life and carries them straight into our local streams and wetlands, and eventually into Puget Sound.

Stormwater is the biggest single source of pollution to Puget Sound. Each year, Puget Sound suffers an oil spill greater than half the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. It just happens drop by drop from storm water, with somewhere between 6.3 million to 8 million gallons of oil dripping into Puget Sound annually.

Stormwater carries with more than just oil. The witches’ brew includes toxins like arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc, mercury, phthalates, pesticides and herbicides from yards and yes, fido’s mess that your neighbor forgot to scoop up.

While this all ends up, sadly, in beautiful Puget Sound, this witches’ brew of runoff travels through our local streams and wetlands, like Hylebos Creek and our beautiful West Hylebos Wetlands, before it gets there.

The way we develop land — removing nature’s built-in filtration systems and sending stormwater straight to local creeks — contributes hugely to this cascade of pollution.

The philosophy of Low Impact Developments, on the other hand, seeks to preserve a site’s natural hydrology, preventing pollution and flooding at the source. When developing an LID project, developers save the site’s significant native trees and native soils as possible. They design the buildings around the site’s natural characteristics. We’ve all seen the developments that scrape a landscape raw, bring in new topsoil, build homes and then plant trees that will never replace the ones that were removed.

Over at Fife’s Meadow on the Hylebos, our nearest LID subdivision, 35 houses were fit comfortably among tall maple and fir trees on the 9-acre site. Runoff is handled through rain gardens and bioswales that naturally infiltrate and treat water before it gets to nearby Hylebos Creek. In addition to the water quality improvement, the development actually increased Hylebos Creek stream buffers from 35 to 150 feet.

Low Impact Development projects can also include techniques like green roofs, where special rooftop plants soak up rainwater and help insulate the building, and pervious pavement that actually allows rainwater to infiltrate through it into the ground.

Over in North Seattle, the city retrofitted several city blocks with LID features, narrower streets, rain garden street edges, pervious pavement. The Street Edge Alternative project (or SEAstreets) has eliminated stormwater runoff from those streets to nearby Pipers Creek. Imagine the impact on Puget Sound if we could replicate this across the region!

Both Meadow on the Hylebos and SEAstreets are better looking neighborhoods than the standard city or suburban offering. The narrower streets calm traffic more effectively than Federal Way’s speed bump system, and are friendly to pedestrians.

Low Impact Development projects can cost more (typically between 5 and 10 percent more) than the typical subdivision. Upfront costs, though, can be recouped through reduced costs for stormwater infrastructure and maintenance.

What would it take to see LID in Federal Way? First thing is to revise the city’s land use code to accommodate Low Impact Development. Later this year the city will begin looking at making its code more LID-friendly. The process will include public participation opportunities, so make your voice heard.

Refining the code is an important step. The city needs to make it possible for developers to go green here. But the revisions would be more effective if they included incentives for developers to build LID projects in Federal Way. Government needs to be creative in promoting positive changes like LID. Fee reductions or a streamlined, fast-track permitting process for LID might make a huge difference.

The other thing the city can do is set an example. Look at making public projects examples of Low Impact Development. The new parking lot at the West Hylebos Wetlands — collaboration between the Friends and the city — is eco-friendly pervious pavement. That’s a start.

Perhaps if we get that long-desired performing arts center, it will be the region’s first Low Impact Development theater?

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve and restore Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands. Chris can be contacted at or (253) 874-2005.

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