Bellingham Joins the Depave Revolution

Written By Tammy Kennon
Photographed by Puget Sound Conservation Districts

Squalicum Creek just got a little cleaner. A new rain garden carved out of two parking spots at Yeager’s Sporting Goods in Bellingham will filter pollutants out of more than 70,000 gallons of stormwater annually, sending clean, naturally filtered water into the creek.

Squalicum Creek flows into Bellingham Bay, part of the complex system of water bodies known collectively as Puget Sound, home to orcas, salmon and the giant Pacific octopus – and, unfortunately, the destination of the region’s polluted runoff.

Stormwater, the rain and snow that runs off of roads, roofs and parking lots, represents the single biggest source of pollution in Puget Sound. While a good rainstorm might cleanse our buildings and streets, the runoff sends toxins, sediment, nutrients and bacteria into our waterways. And there’s a lot of it. An estimated 14 million pounds of chemical pollutants run into Puget Sound annually, threatening wildlife, fish and people. Research has shown that this toxic runoff can kill adult salmon in less than three hours.

Bringing nature back into our cities helps purify otherwise polluted runoff using nature’s own filtering system. An acre of green space serves a dual purpose, sending only 208,000 gallons of clean runoff into waterways and at the same time replenishing vital groundwater with 311,000 gallons annually. By contrast, a single acre of paved surface, the size of a 150-car parking lot, sends a million gallons of polluted runoff into Puget Sound every year.

The good news is that even small green spaces, such as the two parking spots at Yeager’s, have an impact.

With funding from Boeing and The Nature Conservancy, the Puget Sound Conservation Districts (PSCD) created a Stormwater Action team to leverage the skills and resources of the region for districts that don’t have the capacity or experience to implement stormwater projects on their own. 

“Through this team, which is made up of local leaders partnering across Puget Sound, we suddenly have a very big reach and can replicate top programs in the region,” said Kate Riley, a Community Engagement Program Manager in the Snohomish Conservation District. “The city of Bellingham wanted to try a pilot depave case.”

Yeager’s was identified as a high-impact site for depaving, because of the size of the parking lot and its proximity to the creek. And, it also helped that the owner grew up fishing Squalicum Creek.

“The area here has a special place in my heart,” Yeager’s owner John “Westy” Westerfield told the Bellingham Herald. “When we had this opportunity, we couldn’t pass it up.”

Volunteers from Yeager’s staff broke up and removed the asphalt in June, and the rain garden was planted this month with plants that are easy to maintain and tolerant of wet soil.

The Nature Conservancy, working with partners such as Boeing and the Puget Sound Conservation District, continues to mitigate polluted stormwater with projects like the new rain gardens in Bellingham and Tacoma. These successful depave ventures encourage communities to think about where unused pavement can be replaced with nature to energize our waterways and our neighborhoods.

You can learn more about installing a beautiful rain garden in your own yard or neighborhood at City Habitats.



Rolling Back the Pavement

Written by Tammy Kennon
Photographed by Melissa Buckingham, Pierce Conservation District

Pavement does not have to be permanent. The Puget Sound Conservation Districts, a collaboration of the Puget Sound’s 12 districts, reminds us that it’s possible to bring nature back into our urban landscapes.

Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood has reclaimed a derelict, crumbling parking lot and gained a multi-use green habitat. The project, completed in June, now serves dual use as a community gathering space and a natural filtration system for otherwise polluted runoff. The transformed space now filters on-site more than 130,000 gallons of polluted runoff a year.

Thanks to its natural beauty, economic growth and the thriving tech industry, the Puget Sound region is one of the most rapidly urbanizing areas in the nation. Our population grows by more than 200 people every day and by some estimates will top 7.5 million by 2030. Often, this growth puts our green spaces in a losing tug-of-war with urban development. Sprawling pavement, rooftops and roadways send increasing levels of polluted runoff into our vital waterways, creating one of our most urgent environmental challenges.

Reclaiming even small patches of pavement and restoring nature’s filtering systems can have a significant effect in mitigating stormwater pollution, while at the same time reenergizing urban neighborhoods and improving quality of life within our communities.

For the Tacoma Hilltop project, the Pierce Conservation District (PCD) enlisted more than 100 members from the community to help select a site and participate in its transformation.

“We partnered with Tacoma’s Healthy Homes Healthy Neighborhoods program to identify unfunctional space,” said Melissa Buckingham, Water Quality Improvement Director of the Pierce Conservation District. “Feast Art Center was moving into the area and wanted to create an outdoor community space. It just all came together.”

With funds from Boeing and The Nature Conservancy, the Feast Arts Center, an art school and gallery, converted 4,500 square feet of derelict pavement at south 11th and south Sheridan into a vibrant community gathering space featuring an outdoor silent movie theater, rain garden and a green multi-use lawn for events. The perimeter includes a drivable area to accommodate a variety of community events that might utilize food trucks or blood drive vehicles.

“The building and the lot had been a vacant eyesore for many years, so many in the community are grateful for the change,” said Todd Jannausch, co-owner of Feast Arts Center. “We use the space to host a variety of free events, classes and performances for the community.”

Bringing nature back into our urban environment can do more than just energize the neighborhood. A growing body of research suggests that living near green space inspires physical activity, improves neighborhood safety, boosts the economy and helps children learn. The bottom line: It’s easier being green!

From pavement to grass! The end result of the project.

From pavement to grass! The end result of the project.

The success of the Feast Arts Center depave project is a welcome reminder that we can reclaim a natural habitat in the urban environment, proving that humans and nature can thrive together in the same space.