rain gardens

Research points way to sustainable solutions

When you mention Puyallup to most Northwesterners, the city’s fall fair is the image most likely brought to mind. But this suburb of Tacoma is also home to a research center that’s on the leading edge of technology used to cleanup and curb toxic stormwater runoff.

Nationwide, cities and counties are spending billions of dollars trying to reduce the amount of polluted runoff that fouls lakes and bays, floods homes and businesses, and triggers erosion. The rainwater gushes across from highways, streets, parking lots, roof tops, lawns and farms, scooping up oil and grease, pesticides, metals and other toxic chemicals as it goes.

This spring, the Washington State University’s Puyallup Low Impact Development Research Program is launching projects that scientists hope will help slow that flow of water and treat the pollutants.

The WSU researchers are testing “green” solutions for stormwater runoff, including rain gardens and porous pavement. There’s a huge demand for more information about how to maximize the use of these natural strategies.

“Our goal is to help get this stuff on the ground as fast as possible and operating as well as it can,” said Curtis Hinman, director of WSU’s Puyallup program, of the green technologies.

Seattle, Portland, Bremerton, Lacey and Spokane are among the numerous cities installing natural stormwater solutions, which are also known as low-impact development or LID. For the most part, they’ve performed well, reducing and cleaning up runoff.

But as was recently demonstrated in Seattle when city-built rain gardens in the Ballard neighborhood turned into muddy messes, there’s a pressing need for more data on how these systems work.

Byline: 

Should we be using composting toilets? Should NYT's "Toxic Waters" series on sewers, stormwater raise that question?

The latest installment of The New York Times' excellent "Toxic Waters" series has pushed me over the edge: I'm now firmly of the opinion these guys should win a Pulitzer.  

I've sung the praises of Charles Duhigg's reporting before, but he really got to the heart of the matter with this latest piece on sewage and stormwater.

It's been a while since I visited this topic, and in the meantime it seems the holy grail of related medical research has been found: research connecting the sloppy way our aging sewers are handling waste with actual human sickness. According to Duhigg:

A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.

I've written extensively about these problems in the Puget Sound region. Duhigg and the Times are taking it to the national level. And yet, Duhigg doesn't forget to detail how the guys at the local sewer plant in Brooklyn get antsy when it starts raining much, generating stormwater that overpowers sewers in the Big Apple:

They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr.