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April 20, 2000

SPU takes leadership role in salmon habitat recovery

Four-day charrette puts salmon at the center of a broader effort to change landscaping practices.

Seattle Public Utilities

"Build it and they will come." Those words, taken from the film "Field of Dreams" refer to baseball, but they could just as easily represent the ideas behind a Seattle Public Utilities goal for bringing salmon back to spawn in Seattles streams and creeks. SPU, which manages Seattles creek drainage system, initiated plans to educate and encourage change in the way landscape designers, architects and engineers approach and develop urban landscapes, whether on public or private land.

The undertaking is no small feat for SPU. The utility is committed to being a steward of the environment. "Our goal is to bring about a change in the mindset among people in our region. We think it will become standard practice to develop and treat our urban landscape in ways that benefit the entire ecosystem-including salmon," said Diana Gale, director of Seattle Public Utilities. "We encourage people to practice salmon friendly land practices with the same enthusiasm and attention with which the Seattle area has supported recycling."

Water filtration terraces
Water filtration terraces, built out of permeable concrete, are intended to help handle stormwater along Longfellow Creek in West Seattle.
Seattle leads the nation in recycling efforts and recently gained notoriety for being named the mulching capital of the world based on the number of mulching lawnmowers sold.

In March, SPU sponsored a major site design event to prove that urban development can be salmon friendly and serve the needs of businesses and communities. Some of the top urban planners and landscape designers in North America, along with biologists, engineers and environmentalists participated in SPUs Salmon Friendly Seattle Design Charrette. Participants formed five teams and spent four intensive days designing practical solutions for five major sites throughout Seattle.

Each design team was assigned to a different location, each with its own unique set of challenges. The five subject sites were: the shoreline along Elliott Bay from Myrtle Edwards Park and extending North toward the new Immunex campus location; Chief Sealth High School and Denny Middle School in West Seattle; the Arboretum Creek drainage area in the Washington Park Arboretum, which extends from Madison Avenue on the north down to Lake Washington on the south; the Rainier Beach peninsula, including Beer Sheva Park, Pritchard Beach Park and the surrounding area in Seattles Rainier Beach district; and a residential block, with a focus on four residential properties in West Seattle.

The only constraint on the teams besides the time factor was that their designs had to be practical and offer real financial advantages over standard design practices. "We hoped to prove that environmentally sound landscapes can actually save businesses and communities money," said Steve Moddemeyer, SPU water resources coordinator and charrette organizer. "We ended up with creative and practical design concepts that can serve as models for landscape designers and engineers throughout the Northwest." added Moddemeyer.

An example is the proposed changes to the shoreline along Myrtle Edwards Park. By removing the current rock retaining wall and designing a series of coves bordered with plants native to western Washington, a shoreline landscape was created which offered a safe refuge for salmon fingerlings to survive and grow until they are old enough to swim to the sea.

At Chief Sealth High School, designers proposed reducing the area covered by asphalt (a major source of stormwater) and increasing the amount of native plantings to help absorb runoff before it flows into Longfellow Creek. They proposed building an underground cistern to capture rainfall that could then serve as an irrigation source for the school.

The format for the SPU landscape design event was based upon a similar charrette sponsored by the Los Angeles-based group TreePeople in May 1997. That event called attention to the advantages in designing and managing urban landscapes with an environmental focus. "We discovered that the Los Angeles Public School District was preparing to spend $200 million resurfacing gigantic swaths of asphalt school yards," said Andy Lipkis, president of TreePeople and a key participant in the Seattle Charrette. "We were able to show that by reducing much of the asphalt surface and planting thousands of trees, we could reduce some of the runoff which leads to periodic flooding and pollution of local rivers and beaches. We were also able to prove that the district could save between 12 - 18 percent annually in air conditioning costs, because the trees help to cool the buildings in the southern California heat," added Lipkis.

The design charrette is just one of many events SPU is undertaking to educate and encourage salmon friendly gardening. In February, the utility sponsored a major award winning display at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. The "Salmon Friendly Gardening" display showed what people can do in their yards to contribute to the restoration of salmon habitat. Substituting certain plants and using mulch, reducing lawn size, and forgoing chemical fertilizers and herbicides in favor of natural organic methods can impact the water quality and salmon habitat in creeks and streams even if the property is a half-mile or mile away. The display also served to educate nursery owners and landscaping companies on the types of plants to stock so they can direct homeowners toward products that help promote a salmon friendly environment.

In April, SPU is sponsoring a weeklong celebration of the Citys urban creeks. Creek Week began with a major daylong celebration of musical entertainment, food and an environmental fair at Seattles Longfellow Creek on April 15. The remainder of the week includes daily volunteer projects to place the finishing touches on restoration projects at Longfellow, Pipers and Taylor creeks and ending with Thornton Creek on Earth Day, April 22.

"Its important to realize that we can have salmon return to our creeks just like weve seen Bald Eagles return to our skies," adds Gale. "Wouldnt it be great if our children could witness salmon spawning in their neighborhood stream? Its not just some pie-in-the-sky dream. It can be a reality in a very short period of time if we all commit to making it happen. What an incredible legacy that would be," Gale added.

Cornell Amaya is media relations manager for Seattle Public Utilities.

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