Storm water runoff
12:20 pm
Tue September 6, 2011

Seattle removes rain gardens in Ballard

Just a year ago, Seattle was promoting its roadside rain garden project in Ballard. Now, the city is spending half a million dollars to dismantle huge sections of it.

Some neighborhood residents say, despite good intentions, the whole thing has been a fiasco.

When you hear the phrase rain garden, you think of lovely, watery greenscapes that help save the planet by keeping dirty storm water out of Puget Sound.

Mark Early, who is with the group Sustainable Ballard, says that’s exactly how Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) sold the street side rain garden project. Early says he thought it all sounded great. But, he says, the reality was a different story.

"What was actually installed, instead of looking like the photos we had seen, the rain gardens were just deep, muddy ditches,” Early said.

Ditches, that he said, filled with rainwater and didn’t drain at all.

“They smelled, even in the winter, it was really quite surprising,” Early said.

After great hue and cry from the neighbors, the city did more research.  It found that the clay soil in Ballard is particularly hard.

“It was a surprise to our people that the ground there in Ballard did not drain as well as we expected it to. For whatever reason it was like concrete,” said Mike Egan, spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities.

You might think that’s something that would have been discovered before more than a dozen gardens were installed.  Egan says SPU did the same pre-installation investigation in Ballard that it had done in other areas of the city.  In retrospect, he says, perhaps more testing should have been done.

At the time, the city was under a tight deadline. The $1.8 million dollar project for the roadside rain gardens in Ballard was one of those “shovel ready” projects that qualified for federal stimulus dollars. 

Now, Seattle is spending $500,000 to remove one-third of the gardens. Some of the strips are being planted with grass. The other gardens are being revamped to avoid the “muddy ditch” problem.

But some residents, including Early, remain skeptical of the redesign.

“They’ve just made them into attractive landscaping that doesn’t hold hardly any water at all even though they’re going to be very expensive to put in,” Early said.

What everyone agrees on is the need to better handle storm water pollution in the city.  Ballard is a focus because it accounts for a majority of the overflows into Puget Sound.